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Tucson Weekly Catching 22

Youth and a wise choice of parents produce an OK flick.

By Stacey Richter

FEBRUARY 16, 1998:  THERE IS NO excuse for being patronizing, but here I go: Zero Effect is a cute movie. It was written and directed by Jake Kasdan (his father Lawrence Kasdan made The Big Chill etc.), who is just 22. As seems fitting given the age of the sprite, Zero Effect isn't really about life, exactly. This is for the best, because even very wise 22-year-olds are rarely experts on life. Instead, it's about other movies, which is better, because this is something even very dumb 22-year-olds are usually experts on.

Zero Effect is a gentle parody of noir detective movies and their devices--the psychologically compromised detective, the evil industrialist with a nasty past, the reluctant sidekick, the poorly lit hallways, and so on. It floats on the basis of its dialogue, which is goofy rather than witty, and on the performances of its principal actors. Bill Pullman plays Daryl Zero, a Holmes-like detective (he calls himself "the best detective in the world") with a major deficit in the social skills department and one true love: drugs. His problems evaporate when he's working. Then he becomes one slick character. It seems that he might have some sort of multiple-personality, many faces-of-Zero ailment, but he's never really diagnosed in the movie. All we know is that he looks to be around 40, and he's a virgin.

Zero is enough of a basket case enough of the time that he needs a helper to meet with clients and pick up his dry cleaning. Steve Arlo (Ben Stiller), an L.A. lawyer, interfaces with the outside world on Zero's behalf. It's Arlo who meets with their latest client, Gregory Stark (Ryan O'Neil, who isn't really all that fat), a rich guy who's lost his keys. No, really. And he's being blackmailed, too.

Some of what Zero Effect gives us is purely standard: The plot twists are clever enough, but not really surprising. The crimes, the blackmail, the money drops--all are familiar. What makes Zero Effect endearing is that it doesn't take itself seriously--and it doesn't exactly make fun of itself, either. It's not all that ironic. Rather, Arlo and Zero run around Portland, with their silly names, being gently affectionate towards each other and making fun of a poem Stark wrote in his youth. Yeah, it's cute.

The performances in Zero Effect are similarly adorable. Mr. Stiller does his yuppie deadpan thing with restraint--but not that much restraint. He's obviously having a good time. Pullman really pulls out all the stops, wringing his singular ability to convey pure, unselfconscious anxiety. After Lost Highway, he may be the most nervous man on the silver screen--but it's an appealing nervousness. He's like some soiled, abandoned Cabbage Patch kid you find in a thrift store. All he really needs to perk right up is some soap and love.

Where Kasdan seems to run out of charm is in the cinematography department. Zero Effect is a badly shot movie. The lighting is weird--characters appear half-lit, or back lit, for no reason at all. The camera often moves in arbitrary, distracting ways--in one long scene, as two men sit explaining the plot to each other (as often happens in thrillers), the camera dips, dives and skitters along the floor as though it were lashed to the back of a hungry cockroach. The scene is boring enough without having to contend with all the visual distraction. In fact, whenever there's a dialogue-heavy scene, Kasdan falters. The characters begin to speak very slowly. The camera edges around the room. Annoying music arrives.

But overall, the kid has done swell. Nice job, Jake. We're very proud of you. And for all you youngsters who think you have plenty of time to make your mark on the world, here are a few reminders: The Romantic poet Keats had already written his Ode to a Nightengale and wasted away from tuberculosis by the time he died at 26; the French poet Arthur Rimbaud had already retired from writing at 20; the wonderful photographer Jaques-Henri Lartigue did his best and most famous work between the ages of about 12 and 16, and Mary Shelley finished Frankenstein shortly before she died at the age of 18.

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