'Zero Effect' an Unfortunately Appropriate TitleBy Yaron Koren
At the center of Zero Effect are the mystery-solving pair of Daryl Zero (Bill Pullman) and Steve Arlo (the always-entertaining Ben Stiller). We first meet Zero as he's strumming a horrible song he has written for his guitar, and later we see his cupboard, overflowing with nothing but tuna and Tab. He's a brilliant detective but a failure as a human being, unable to connect with others because of his need to remain a detached observer of people (or maybe just because he's nuts). Arlo is his befuddled assistant, who deals with Zero's clients directly, due to his boss' need for seclusion.
The low-budget movie follows the pair as they tackle their latest case in which a desperate millionaire named Stark (a pasty Ryan O'Neal) is being blackmailed by a stranger who knows a great deal about Stark's mysterious, sordid past. During the investigation, Zero meets Gloria (Kim Dickens), an attractive, risk-taking young woman who seems connected in many ways to the mystery. She and Zero form an instant attraction: he to her normality and her ability to defy his astute observational capacities, and she to his, well, this part isn't quite made clear, although the fact that he looks like Bill Pullman certainly couldn't hurt.
This budding love story is easily the weakest part of Zero Effect. The intention is clear: to explore what happens when the an observer with a keen critical eye falls in love with his subject, and loses his objectivity. But the chemistry just isn't there, and since Zero is never forced to make a difficult moral decision as a result of his newfound love, we don't know if he has learned anything from it. Plus, every minute of the couple together is another minute without Ben Stiller, and that can't be good.
It's nice to see an updated take on the Sherlock Holmes legend. Unfortunately, there is something lackluster in the direction. Or perhaps it's a fault inherent in the premise itself that keeps us from connecting emotionally to any of the characters, and, by extension, caring about what happens to them. Between the semi-maniacal Zero and the confused and demoralized Arlo, there isn't enough to like about the pair to give the storyline energy. The movie comes close at times, such as the scene where Arlo threatens to leave Zero in exchange for a stab at a normal life. While the scene credibly shows how these two radically different temperaments can grow attached to one other, it turns out to be too little, too late.
Zero Effect would have been more successful as a straight comedy or as a character study, or even as a serious detective story. Instead it is nearly as schizophrenic as it's subject, trying to deal with too many things, including a smattering of tepid pop philosophy about the impossibility of objectivity. It doesn't really get any of them right, ending up being about as fulfilling as a meal of tuna and Tab.