Apathetic Noir: Why I Love 1998’s ‘Zero Effect’

By Sean Tuohy

"A person can't escape their nature."—Daryl Zero

The pop culture landscape is teeming with overlooked movies. We all have that movie that we think is underrated or an actor or actress performance that no one took seriously. These are small, personal gems that you want share with the world at large, but that get you nothing but blank stares from unenlightened coworkers.

One of my favorites is a 1990s post-noir film that bleeds Generation X apathy: “Zero Efect.” The 1998 mystery thriller doesn’t play by modern mystery thriller rules. Writer/director Jake Kasdan, son of Lawrence Kasden, penned a tight, well-thought-out caper that would have made Lew Archer and Phillip Marlow stand up and cheer.

The movie follows the world's most private detective Daryl Zero and his partner Steve Arlo as they help find a blackmail artist in Portland. Zero is brought to life by Bill Pullman, who designs a character you learn to love slowly over the course of the movie. He’s a man driven by his work; skilled, resourceful, one of a kind. But Zero possesses no social graces and can be nearly impossible to be around. Somehow Arlo is able to keep the oddball hero on track, despite the issues that it causes with his relationship with his girlfriend. Arlo is played by Ben Stiller, who brings all his trademarks to the role, but with a little something extra. Stiller plays Arlo like a real person. He gets annoyed and frustrated with Zero and his crazy ways, but at the same time respects Zero's skills. The two have a very brotherly relationship, allowing the love they hold for one another to stay under the surface. The pair has great dialogue that bounces off one another and flows with ease.

"I'll shoot you. Really, I will. I have a gun and everything."—Steve Arlo

Now, I will say that Monk had a similar plot line: a detective who can barely operate in the real world, but with the help of a grounded partner he always solves the case. Well, Zero Effect took it a step further and made Zero a very difficult person to like. He snaps and lashes out at others and in one scene talks about how he has stayed awake for three days because of methamphetamines. Zero "lives" in closed off apartment from the world in a mess of paperwork and trash. He believes people listen to phone calls and that "they" are out there. I have no idea who "they" are, nor does Zero, but he believes in them. This over-the-top character produces some great comic moments, and “Zero Effect” as a whole is filled with great one liners that make you chuckle.

Kasden must be a fan of noir mystery because it shows in the movie. Scenes scream noir with shadows and the fanatic lighting. The script was well planned out because every step falls on the right spot.

Why was this movie so unknown? I'm not too sure. It wasn't a blockbuster, nor was it a Shane Black-style bang bang noir thriller. It was a small indie movie that told a compact, but layered story. I want to see more Darryl Zero in a television show or a book series. I would follow him and Arlo for years to come.

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