The brilliant nerd hero from the Pacific Northwest is overdue in movies. So one finds his way into “Zero Effect” in the form of Daryl Zero, an aging hippie Sherlock Holmes with the household habits of a Howard Hughes. As played with wild-eyed foxiness by Bill Pullman, Zero is a wealthy recluse living in a penthouse on canned soup and tuna fish, whacking tunelessly at his guitar and occasionally calming down enough to play detective. His long-suffering Watson is Steve Arlo (Ben Stiller), who is a slave to Zero’s whims and cordially hates his boss.
As directed in scattered but promising style by Jake Kasdan, the 22-year-old son of the writer and director Lawrence Kasdan, “Zero Effect” rambles amiably through the adventures of this self-proclaimed “greatest observer the world has ever known.” Zero gets caught up in the case of a Portland timber tycoon named Gregory Stark (Ryan O’Neal), who is being blackmailed for reasons unknown. As a master of goofy-looking disguises, Daryl tracks Stark to his health club and begins watching the man keenly, noticing such details as how fast he runs on a treadmill and what time he takes his morning massage. The film does its best to let him tease Holmesian reasoning out of such slim data.
The film begins on a funny note by intercutting Arlo’s slick professional pitch for his boss’s talents with Arlo’s rant to a drinking buddy about what an inept, unpleasant jerk he actually finds Zero to be. This ought to pave the way for a nicely barbed relationship between the two, but “Zero Effect” never gives it much room to develop. Instead, Kasdan leads Zero into a fascination with Gloria Sullivan (Kim Dickens), whom he meets at the health club and immediately identifies as a paramedic for reasons having to do with the way she dries her hair. Zero’s interest in Gloria seems to go well beyond his suspicion that she has something to do with the blackmail case.
“Zero Effect” grows slower and wispier as it delves into the mystery and tries to allow Zero some personal growth. In the process, it loses some of the wit that kept its early episodes lively. Eventually brooding sets in, with Gloria saying things like “What doesn’t kill you defines you” and the film digging up sad secrets about its characters’ pasts.
None of that is as compelling as Zero’s over-the-top eccentricity, or as the inviting Portland locations that give the film its visual energy. But both Pullman and the slyly restrained Stiller keep their characters entertaining even when Kasdan’s interest is elsewhere. For all its admirable ambitions, this loosely focused first feature has the makings of a better buddy story than detective tale anyhow.
O’Neal’s scenes with both his wily co-stars are a reminder of his own comic slipperiness in past performances, finding him nicely in tune with this genre material.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: “Zero Effect” Location: North Division Credits: Directed by Jake Kasdan, starring Bill Pullman, Ben Stiller, Ryan O’Neal, Kim Dickens, Angela Featherstone, Hugh Ross Running time: 1:55 Rating: R