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Gambit Weekly The Loopy Sleuth

By Rick Barton

MARCH 2, 1998: 

FILM: Zero Effect
STARRING: Bill Pullman, Ben Stiller
DIRECTOR: Jake Kasdan

If you've seen all the Oscar-nominationed pictures, then the new one you want to check out is writer/director Jake Kasdan's consciously quirky crime tale, Zero Effect. It's the story of super sleuth Daryl Zero (Bill Pullman), the renowned private investigator who solved The Case of the Man With Mismatched Shoelaces and The Case of the Guy Who Lied About His Age. This picture is one part offbeat comedy and one part brainy detective story. In whole part, it's a delicious entertainment that leaves you grinning from ear to ear.

Daryl Zero, as one of the film's slogans goes, is "the world's most private detective." His unbending procedures include refusing ever to meet his clients. He's outrageously expensive, and he never negotiates his fee. His methods are unorthodox, but he's so good, he's sometimes able to solve his cases without leaving his high-security Los Angeles apartment. Daryl is represented by his full-time associate, a lawyer named Steve Arlo (Ben Stiller), whose attitude toward his boss vacillates from awe to contempt. Steve serves as Daryl's field assistant and liaison with clients. He's a pretty smart guy himself, but he never does figure out what Daryl is up to.

Daryl's current job is The Case of the Missing Keys. Oregon timber tycoon Gregory Stark (Ryan O'Neal) has lost his keys to a safety deposit box, the contents of which he refuses to divulge. Meanwhile, in a development that may or may not be related, Stark is being blackmailed on charges of having raped a woman many years ago when he was a Harvard undergraduate. He doesn't know the identity of his blackmailer. Intrigued, Daryl agrees to accept the case and even, reluctantly, to leave his apartment. Soon, employing a variety of disguises and techniques, Daryl is ferreting out the relevant details of Stark's life and current dilemma. "My work relies on two basic principles," Daryl says, "objectivity and observation, or the two 'obs,' as I call them." In The Case of the Missing Keys, however, Daryl's objectivity gets clouded by an unprecedented development: he falls for the woman, Gloria Sullivan (Kim Dickens), who just might be the blackmailer.

In Zero Effect, Daryl Zero (Bill Pullman, left) and Steve Arlo (Ben Stiller) reprise a familiar entertaining partnership.
A lesser writer would have turned this material into a sequel for The Naked Gun or The Pink Panther. But filmmaker Kasdan makes no use of physical comedy and never goes for the cheap laugh. As a result, Zero Effect offers a freshness we seldom get from a mainstream Hollywood feature, even one like this with a narrow release strategy. And yet, in significant regard, Daryl Zero is actually a canny modernization of that king of sleuths himself, Sherlock Holmes. Kasdan never strives to point up this comparison, but it's notable that like Holmes, Daryl has a trusty assistant, Watson become Arlo, doctor become lawyer. Both detectives are able to deduce huge patterns of behavior from seemingly insignificant physical details. And also like Holmes, Daryl has a troubled private life. Holmes is a melancholic coke-head; Daryl is an agoraphobic neurotic.

I might complain that Kasdan's script stumbles a bit when it has Daryl make most un-Daryl-like mistakes: he identifies himself as first an architect and then an accountant to people who know and talk to each other. And after claiming to save all his receipts, he blatantly leaves one on a table top. And like the great Holmes, Daryl's logical leaps work better taken on faith than when too carefully examined. But there's so much to like here. Pullman gives a virtuoso performance, and Dickens makes her plainness very nicely appealing. Do give this one a look. It's the best film I've seen in six weeks.

The Gambling Cleric

Director Gillian Armstrong's Oscar and Lucinda is a frustration. It's beautifully filmed with carefully staged, lovely images and terrifically skilled performances. But in the final analysis, the picture never quite comes together. We never get a handle on its characters, and the connection between the characters' traits and their actions proves irksomely elusive.

Adapted for the screen by Laura Jones from Peter Carey's novel, Oscar and Lucinda is the story of two people from different continents who are brought together by their shared addiction to gambling. Oscar Hopkins (Ralph Fiennes) is an English lad who grows up in a strict religious household. His father (Clive Russell) is a Brethren minister who thinks that faithfulness to God requires expunging all earthly joy. Oscar is deeply religious himself, but he discovers physical pleasure in a forbidden taste of pudding and decides that he can be just as worshipful as an Anglican. While at Oxford studying for the ministry, Oscar discovers the joys of betting on horse races. He loves the tingling excitement of the bet, and he comes to view every victory as a sign of God's blessing. And God does seem to bless Oscar's gambling. The young man's winnings enable him to live more comfortably, give presents to friends and donate significant sums to the poor.

Lucinda (Cate Blanchett) and Oscar (Ralph Fiennes) can't let themselves enjoy each other, while director Gillian Armstrong doesn't let viewers enjoy her movie.
Meanwhile, in Australia, a young woman named Lucinda Leplastrier (Cate Blanchett) inherits a vast fortune that provides her very little in the way of happiness. Lucinda can find pleasure in only three things: ornamental glass, conversations with her friend the Rev. Dennis Hasset (Ciaran Hinds), and, eventually, gambling. She likes cards in particular. Lucinda might like to develop her relationship with Hasset along romantic lines, but he disapproves of her gambling and moves from Sydney to a distant rural parish.

Oscar and Lucinda meet on an ocean liner. She is returning from a trip to London, and he is on his way to missionary service in Australia. They play cards, and they fall for one another, but both are so emotionally clotted they can't reveal their affection. They settle for a relationship of unspoken urges and tolerated misunderstandings. Finally, this leads to disaster when Oscar heads into the hinterland on a mission devised solely for the purpose of winning Lucinda's already thoroughly won heart.

I have to believe that all this proved more exciting and cohesive in Carey's Booker Prize-winning novel (which I haven't read). Armstrong is certainly a talented filmmaker, as demonstrated by the strong critical reception she received for such earlier films as My Brilliant Career and Little Women. But she's not at all well served by Jones' screenplay. A host of events are poorly constructed, and the whole feels hastily taped together.

Oscar doesn't think gambling is a sin, so why does he feel he has to go to Australia to get away from gambling? How are we to understand Lucinda's obsession with glass? By what logic does Oscar derive the notion that he can win Lucinda's heart by delivering a prefabricated glass and steel church to Hasset's congregation? And why does the idea excite Lucinda so? Why does the trek to Hasset's parish take on the look of a military expedition? We know that Oscar has an irrational fear of the sea, but he managed to make it from London to Sydney, so why does he endeavor to reach Hasset's parish overland? Why does expedition leader Mr. Jeffris (Richard Roxburgh) go out of his way to murder aborigines in their own territory? And given the fact that Lucinda has promised Jeffris a sizable bonus for delivering Oscar safely, why does Jeffris then turn and try to kill Oscar? At the end, how are we to understand the actions of one Miriam Chadwick (Josephine Byrnes), and why would Oscar respond to Miriam in such a nonsensical way?

I have other complaints as well, but you get the point. I suspect that much has been deleted and truncated from Carey's original story. We never understand the behavior of this film's characters, and that's its undoing.

The Troubled Teen

If you've ever had a hankering to make your own movie, you might take heart from a viewing of Peter Hall's Delinquent. The picture is well-enough intentioned, I guess. It's the story of Tim (Desmond Devenish), a teenage boy whose mother has committed suicide and whose alcoholic cop father regularly terrorizes him. But it's as amateurish a production as I've seen in some time. My primary reaction is that if Hall could identify funding for this klutzy flick, there must be money out there for some better project.

Tim takes refuge in a rich family's summer home and eventually devises a plan to kill his father that goes cockeyed when Tracy (Shawn Batten), the family's pretty teenage daughter, shows up unexpectedly. But that summary is far more exciting than this picture's action. There's a clumsy subplot about Tracy's involvement with her high school English teacher. There's a non-plot about Tim's friendship with a local black youngster. But mostly there are endless scenes of filler. Hall employs the extreme close-up the way an alcoholic employs booze: too often and to disastrous effect. And Jeff Paul as Tim's dad contributes a performance so wooden it would make Glenn Campbell wince. .

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