One thing movies tend to do for the most part really badly is portray realistic geniuses. I mean geniuses, not just smart people. The people whose brains run on different tracks. Almost uniformly these characters get slotted into two tracks: the comic relief nerd (Egon in Ghostbusters) or the crazy savant (for example, the horrifically bad A Beautiful Mind). Worst of all is the tortured genius genre, wherein the filmmakers take pains to make sure we all understand how tortured the genius in question is, merely because he’s a genius. How persecuted a genius must be!
Zero Effect is that rare accomplishment: a movie about a tortured genius that avoids cliche, easy answers, and mawkish sentimentalism. It’s also very entertaining on a quiet, subtle scale; the dialogue crackles and the plot is brilliant. It also manages to portray the fact of being a genius in an original, compelling way.
Darryl Zero (Bill Pullman) is the aforementioned genius – the “world’s greatest private detective,” but for real. He apes certain trappings of Sherlock Holmes (naming his cases with ostentatious names like The Case Of The Man With The Nonexistent Suitcases), but he’s also an emotional wreck – agoraphobic, obsessive-compulsive and with social skills that are poor. But – and this is wonderful – over the course of the movie it becomes apparent that he is these things not because he is a genius, but because like everyone else on the planet, he is fucked up in his own way.
A “before he got real famous and annoying”-era Ben Stiller plays Zero’s Archie Goodwin analogue, Steve Arlo. Steve hates his job, but remains loyal to his boss even as he realizes he has to quit, and assists Zero in handling the case. It’s a good dramatic performance by Stiller, who can actually act when he wants to do that. (Which, because he is rich thanks to mugging like a jackass, is not often. But frankly, if I were rich thanks to mugging like a jackass, I would do the same thing.)
Arlo, on behalf of Zero, is contacted by a rich man named Stark (Ryan O’Neal at his sleazy best). Stark is being blackmailed, and wants the blackmailer found. That’s the mystery, and it absolutely ruins the movie if I tell you how Zero solves it or how it plays out – but I assure you, the payoff is excellent and the process utterly engaging.
But this isn’t just a mystery; it’s also a story about a guy who is fucked up trying to unfuck himself a little. Zero begins this process when, in the course of his investigation, he meets Gloria (the superlative Kim Dickens, who went on to play the magnificent Joanie Stubbs in Deadwood and nowadays occasionally shows up as the mother of Sawyer’s kid in Lost), an enigmatic EMT with obvious smarts. It spoils nothing to say that Gloria ends up being involved in the mystery to an extent (I mean, come on), but how she is involved and the ramifications of her interactions with Zero are fascinating to watch.
This is a difficult post to write because the process of watching this movie is half the fun; it’s just well-written on a scale that’s amazing, every performance is just about perfect and the direction by Jake Kasdan is competent enough to know not to get in the way. As I write this, I want to explain how the follow-the-money sequence brilliantly shows, rather than tells, how great a genius Darryl Zero is (and does so with a narrative voiceover, normally the bane of evocative filmmaking). But if I did, that would ruin it.
So you’ll just have to trust me on this one.