[Screen It]


(1998) (Bill Pullman, Ben Stiller) (R)

Blood/Gore Disrespectful/
Bad Attitude
Tense Scenes
Mild Mild Moderate Minor Moderate
Mild None Minor Minor Extreme
Smoking Tense Family
Topics To
Talk About
Mild None Minor Mild Moderate

Drama: A private detective finds his method of professional objectivity threatened when he begins to fall for a woman involved in his latest investigation.
Gregory Stark (RYAN O'NEAL) is a Portland timber tycoon with two big problems. He's lost his keys to his safety deposit box and he's fallen prey to a blackmailer to whom he's already paid several large sums of money. Not knowing what else to do, he hires Daryl Zero (BILL PULLMAN), the best private detective money can buy. Unbeknownst to Stark, while Zero is the world's greatest detective, he's also a social miscast who is afraid to leave his home when not working.

He also never meets any of his clients, but instead has them go through his front-man, Steve Arlo (BEN STILLER). Stark gives Arlo little to work with regarding these matters, and he in turn delivers the scant information to Zero who begins working on the case. Believing that observation and personal detachment are the most important keys to solving a case, Zero heads off to watch Stark and begins collecting clues.

He soon realizes that Gloria Sullivan (KIM DICKENS), a mysterious paramedic, is involved in the case, and he begins to lose his objectivity as he slowly starts to fall for her. He also becomes distracted when Arlo begins to succumb to pressure from his girlfriend, Jess (ANGELA FEATHERSTON), to quit and find another job. As the private eye begins to zero in on the circumstances of the case, he soon learns the sorted details behind it all while trying to remain as objective as possible.

Preteens will probably have no interest in it. Teens might, but probably only if they're fans of someone in the cast.
For language.
  • BILL PULLMAN plays a private detective who pokes around through others' lives and is the best at what he does. He's also a social misfit and is afraid to leave the house when not working. Although no use is seen, it's implied (through two lines of dialogue) that he does do some drugs.
  • BEN STILLER plays Zero's assistant who puts his job in front of the needs of his girlfriend.
  • KIM DICKENS plays a woman who's blackmailing Stark.
  • RYAN O'NEAL plays a tycoon with a shady past who finds himself the victim of a blackmailing scheme.


    OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
    Detective stories have long been a favorite among readers of fiction, as well as moviegoers and TV viewers. Nearly everyone enjoys these stories since we, as the audience, usually get to play along as well, trying to solve the crime or mystery before the sleuth does. Additionally, since the characters get to sort through others' personal belongings and generally snoop about, the genre has always tapped into our inherent curiosity about other people's lives.

    Such characters are usually masters of deductive reasoning. They have the ability to discern the smallest bit of evidence from an overlooked clue, and we love the fact that they can solve what everyone else considers unsolvable. Yet, more often than not, the private lives of those detectives are rarely explored, and if they are, the personal and private lives are usually nearly indistinguishable. What if the world's greatest detective, a master of observing the hidden as well as the obvious, was privately a social misfit?

    That's the thrust of "Zero Effect," the latest take on the detective/gum shoe genre. It's an interesting premise and while the entire set up and resolution work in theory (and on paper), the execution is somewhat flat on the big screen. Written and directed by Jake Kasdan (yes, the son of his more famous writer/director father, Lawrence Kasdan -- "The Big Chill," "Raiders of the Lost Ark"), this is a decent directorial debut for the young man. He's got everything down pat from the mysterious initial offerings to hook us, all the way through the unveiling of clues and finally to the point where all of the elements come together and finally make sense.

    There are two problems, however, than hinder how successful the film turns out. The first is Kasdan's script. While it's got all of the procedural elements to qualify as a private eye story, it's just not that exciting. The final "twists" and "turns" (that we won't reveal) aren't particularly that exciting once we sum up everything that's happened. More like a decent story on a standard TV detective program, the plot works but is anything but spectacular and offers few thrills or real surprises.

    There's also the problem with the main component of the script. We're told and are supposed to believe that Zero, the world's greatest detective, is a social misfit who hates to leaves his apartment even to get food. Yet he manages to go out and interact with the people he's investigating without any apparent problems. For me, that discrepancy throws the story out of kilter. I could see if he was just acting serious and debonair, and the moment after he was done he'd be sweating bullets and have to run off and hide. Likewise, I'd better accept it if he were more like the Jack Nicholson character from "As Good As It Gets" who does go out, but has a ton of rules and peculiarities surrounding him. Daryl Zero is like night and day -- if he's working he's Mr. Cool, but if he's not, he's a Howard Hughes-like recluse. It just doesn't work for me and needs to be a better constructed shade of grey instead of pure black and white.

    The bigger problem, though, is in the casting, and particularly concerning the lead. While I've usually liked Bill Pullman ("Independence Day," "Mr. Wrong") in most of the roles he's played, he's not a great actor (he's good, but not great). And when he plays the down and out or dingy characters he often comes across as somewhat annoying. It would certainly seem then, that having him playing a social miscast private eye might be the proper casting choice. On paper it might have been, but in reality I just didn't buy Pullman playing this character. It may be just me, but I kept thinking the role should have been played more by a comedian, such as Bill Murray.

    Yes, I'm guilty of recasting wishes, but there were so many scenes where Pullman just didn't feel right for the man he was playing. At one moment when his character begins spouting out the history of hotel bedding (a trivial clue he dredges up somewhere out of his subconscious), all I could see and hear was Bill Murray and his standard serious, but impassioned and yet somehow deadpan commentary on such matters.

    Stiller ("Reality Bites") is much better off in his role as the straight-man to his boss' idiosyncrasies, and is believable as the man torn between his love life and his profession. Ryan O'Neal (an Oscar nominee for 1970's "Love Story") isn't give much to work with (other than to alternate between being nervous and menacing), but supporting character actress Kim Dickens sinks her teeth into her role and creates a mysterious, but spunky character.

    Since the movie really evolves into a romance, there needs to be some good chemistry between the leads. It does develop between the two in an odd sort of way, but what's really missing -- and what would have made the story so much more fun -- is Zero's reaction to all of this. Noted earlier that he's probably never even kissed a woman, that's a perfect setup for some really awkward and/or panic inducing situations. While Pullman does act just a little stressed, I believe they missed a gold mine of opportunity by not playing that to its full extent.

    The technical credits are good and Kasdan definitely shows an eye for the big screen (perhaps inherited through birth). Unfortunately, innovative cinematographer Bill Pope ("Darkman," "Bound") isn't given much leeway to strut his stuff, and instead is relegated to some standard- issue camera movement that slowly creeps around the characters.

    While the movie initially looks promising (and starts with the revved up and always fun "Mystery Dance" song from Elvis Costello), there are just too many parts of it that don't work as well as they should. Add in the occasional voice over by Pullman -- as he "reads" his memoirs like a good, but stereotypical private eye does -- and the whole thing gets just that much more irksome. Kasdan seems to have a knack for film making (and the genes to back him up) and we expect he'll put out some better films as he gains more experience. Although it's an interesting take on the detective genre, "Zero Effect" will probably have the exact impression on most moviegoers. We give it a 4 out of 10.

    Profanity (22 "f" words and an assortment of others) gives this film its R rating. Beyond that, there are some brief violent images (as someone is murdered in flashback) and a few quick glimpses of the bloody body. There's also one brief sensual scene that ends before anything is seen. Some blackmailing efforts and other unearthed criminal activity obviously exhibit bad attitudes. Other than some drinking (and a few references to drug use that isn't seen), the rest of the categories don't have much objectionable material. Still, should you or someone in your family wish to see this film, you should look through the scene listings first to determine whether it is appropriate.

  • Steve and a friend have drinks in a bar (in two different scenes) and we later see them drinking some sort of liquor.
  • Zero tells Steve, "You've got to love those amphetamines" (after commenting on being up for the past three days). Later, Steve tells him, "You've got to stop snorting that sh*t" (presumably referring to cocaine).
  • Steve and Jess have wine while playing Scrabble.
  • Stark has a drink in a restaurant.
  • We see some photographs of a somewhat bloody murder victim, and later see flashback images of the same where the victim's head and arms are bloody.
  • Gloria is blackmailing Stark.
  • We learn that a person in the past hired someone to kill a third person.
  • Stark begins to close in on the blackmailer in a planetarium.
  • Handgun: Zero finds one in Gloria's bedside table. Later, both of them shoot it at cans out in the woods.
  • Handgun: Used by a murderer to kill someone (briefly seen in flashback).
  • Phrases: "Nuts" (crazy), "Pissed," "Pain in the ass," "Shut up," and "Scum."
  • Being a detective, Zero snoops around a lot through people's personal belongings.
  • Part of a money drop-off deal involves Stark pulling and setting off a fire alarm in a public building.
  • None.
  • There's just a bit of ominous music, along with a scene that has heartbeat sounds.
  • A song in the closing credits has the word "hell" in it several times.
  • At least 22 "f" words (1 used sexually), 9 "s" words, 3 asses (1 using "hole"), several hell's, and 7 uses of "Jesus," and 1 use each of "God" and "Oh God" as exclamations.
  • Jess' swimsuit reveals some cleavage.
  • Zero and Gloria passionately kiss (with some heavy breathing) and begin disrobing, but we don't see any nudity.
  • None.
  • An infant is orphaned when her mother is murdered.
  • The world of private detectives.
  • Blackmailers and their attempts at extorting money.
  • In a brief, jumpy flashback we see a murderer fire several shots that kill someone (we don't see the impact, but do see quick glimpses of the bloody body).
  • Zero throws things around inside a hotel room in anger.

  • Reviewed January 12, 1998

    Other new and recent reviews include:

    [1917] [Bombshell] [Cats] [Little Women] [Spies In Disguise] [Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker] [Uncut Gems]

    Privacy Statement and Terms of Use and Disclaimer
    By entering this site you acknowledge to having read and agreed to the above conditions.

    All Rights Reserved,
    ©1996-2020 Screen It, Inc.