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'Zero' Adds Up to a Fresh Detective Yarn


Daryl Zero, the hero of the offbeat mystery comedy "Zero Effect," has mastered the fine art of detachment, honed to perfection his powers of objectivity and observation and developed a sense of deductive reasoning that can be described only as Sherlockian. All of this may confirm his claim to be the world's greatest detective, but there's a side to him that his clients never see; in fact, they never see him! Daryl Zero is afraid of people.

Meet a Philip Marlowe for the phobic '90s and welcome "Zero Effect's" talented 22-year-old writer, director and producer Jake Kasdan. Yes, he's the son of Lawrence Kasdan, and we can only wonder how much the senior Kasdan had to do with the movie's slick, sure-handed production. Maybe it's all in the genes.

In any event, "Zero Effect" is a confident first film and one of the freshest detective yarns to come along in a while. This is not another genre sendup from someone raised on movies. Kasdan's anthropophobic hero is an original, and he's given the film an odd rhythm that keeps the audience from trying to get a step ahead and outguess it.

The title refers to that inevitable moment when Daryl Zero (Bill Pullman) solves whatever mystery he's working on. Throughout the movie, he carries on a busy off-screen narrative, giving away trade secrets, explaining the process, boasting about how he came to solve some previous, colorfully titled job (The Case of the Mismatched Shoelaces, the Case of the Hired Gun Who Made Too Many Mistakes).

The case at hand, which will end up with a title longer than this review, has Zero venturing out of his fortress-like Los Angeles apartment to fly to Portland, where he's been hired by timber baron Gregory Stark (Ryan O'Neal) to find a key to a safe deposit box containing something that will free him from his persistent blackmailer.

Stark didn't hire Zero directly, of course. He had to deal with Steve Arlo (Ben Stiller), Zero's combination assistant, investigator, secretary, gofer and legal and mental health counselor. Zero can do nothing without Arlo because he can communicate with other people only while playing a self-cast role.

So, while Arlo yo-yos back and forth between Portland and Los Angeles, trying to balance his weird job obligations with his commitment to his increasingly fed-up girlfriend (Angela Featherstone), the boss goes to work. First step, join Stark's health club and observe his client up close. Next, track a blackmail payment and hope to catch the blackmailer red-handed.

Within 24 hours, Zero has found the lost key and the woman apparently behind the scheme. He could send in his bill and go home. But Zero is far too curious and obsessive to walk away from an unsolved mystery, even off the clock. Why, he has to know, is Stark being blackmailed? What's in the safe deposit box? And why would a woman for whom Zero is feeling--what is that, passion?--be involved in such a crime?

Suddenly, the mystery story has become a romance, and a pretty good one. Zero and Gloria Sullivan (Kim Dickens) are an interesting pair of loners who develop an honest relationship even while lying to each other through their teeth.

Pullman is really marvelous in a role that allows him to make his strongest statements without words. It's hard for Zero to carry on a normal conversation, especially with a woman romantically interested in him, and as he agonizes over what to say, Pullman turns the moments into little arias of tortured silence.

Stiller doesn't get as many comic moments as he might; Arlo is essentially a whiny schlepper. But O'Neal makes a terrific heavy out of Stark, and newcomer Dickens is genuinely appealing as the ultimately tragic Gloria.

"Zero Effect" has its rough spots. The neurotic flourishes that Kasdan uses to introduce Zero manage to be both precious and over the top at the same time. For a while, it looks as though the model for Zero is Sean Penn's Jeff Spicoli from "Fast Times at Ridgemont High." And though the dialogue is generally sharp, there are bad patches.

Nonetheless, this is a smartly hip first film for anyone and, though its box-office performance isn't likely to spawn a sequel, we wouldn't mind seeing Daryl Zero in action again.

* MPAA rating: R, for language. Times guidelines: too talky for action fans.

'Zero Effect'

Bill Pullman: Daryl Zero

Ben Stiller: Steve Arlo

Ryan O'Neal: Gregory Stark

Kim Dickens: Gloria Sullivan

A Manifest Film Production, released by Columbia Pictures/Castle Rock Entertainment. Director-screenplay Jake Kasdan. Producers Kasdan, Lisa Henson, Janet Yang. Editor Tara Timpone. Cinematography Bill Pope. Music the Greyboy Allstars. Production design Gary Frutkoff. Art direction Philip J. Messina. Costumes Kym Barrett. Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes.


* In general release.

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