Weekly Wire
Weekly Alibi What Up, Holmes?

By Devin D. O'Leary

FEBRUARY 23, 1998:  Of all the press material I've seen reviewing the new mystery flick Zero Effect, most of it seems to acknowledge the clever, updated Holmes-and-Watson-like relationship of the film's two main characters. Nobody, as yet, seems to have gotten the joke, however. Zero Effect isn't like the work of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle; it is the work of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Zero Effect is a near scene-for-scene remake of Doyle's Scandal in Bohemia--though I'm sure few in the audience will be aware of this fact (I'm not entirely sure the producers were aware of it). Scandal is notable in the Holmes mythos for two reasons: 1) It's the only case he never solved, and 2) it's the one where he falls in love. Zero Effect manages to successfully exploit this famous story for effects both mysterious and comedic.

Bill Pullman is our Sherlock Holmes stand-in, one Daryl Zero by name. Zero is a flaky genius capable of solving nearly any crime in record time without even leaving the cluttered confines of his penthouse apartment--which is a good thing, because he'd much rather be locked away from society at large banging out awful tunes on his electric guitar and gulping down huge quantities of speed (substitute a violin and some morphine and it's Holmes all over). Unable to function properly in the real world, Zero has recruited a Dr. Watson in straitlaced lawyer Steve Arlo (Ben Stiller). It is Arlo who performs all the day-to-day business, while Zero lurks in the shadows waiting to unleash his brilliant (if poorly ordered) mind. Although he stages frequent drunken bitchfests with friends to complain about what a dysfunctional jerk his legendary boss really is, Arlo has developed a grudging, almost protective affection for the nutter.

In Zero Effect, our calculating detective is called to the Pacific Northwest to solve a sticky case of blackmail involving Portland timber tycoon Gregory Stark (Ryan O'Neal, employing some of that oily comic charisma we haven't seen since Paper Moon). In the process, Zero stumbles across slinky but skittish paramedic Gloria Sullivan (Kim Dickens) with whom he develops a more than professional fascination. This mysterious woman's link to the original Conan Doyle story is powerful, although I'll resist the urge to spoil it in print. If you're familiar with the original story, you'll know right away who she's supposed to be.

Although it bears a strong literary pedigree, Zero Effect stands out from the cineplex crowd for a number of other reasons. It's been ages since audiences have seen a true "mystery" that doesn't quickly disintegrate into "thriller" territory. Quite refreshingly, there isn't a single explosion, violent death or gunfight in this entire film. Though not quite so comically oriented, Zero Effect reminded my quite a bit of Chevy Chase's finest hour, Fletch. Pullman and Stiller are suitably matched as the modern-day Holmes-and-Watson duo. Pullman has found a perfect role as the slatternly, wigged-out genius--his Daryl Zero is two parts Albert Einstein, one part Jim Morrison. Stiller, meanwhile, proves his cinematic merit yet again as the long-suffering sidekick. He's a winning straight man, and the perfect comic foil to the scene-stealing gyrations of Pullman.

Zero Effect threatens to derail when the focus is pulled away from the buddy comedy of Daryl Zero and Steve Arlo to the budding romance of Daryl Zero and Gloria Sullivan. The switching of focus is important, though, as it allows our hero a chance at some character growth and bumps the story into uncharted waters. First-time director Jake Kasdan commits all the typical sins of the neophyte (trying to dazzle us with his expensive crane shots), but he's inherited enough of his father's workman-like talent (daddy directed The Big Chill and Silverado) to make it all gel smoothly. The end result is a refreshing hybrid of old and new.

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