There’s something about the allure of a great talent, a legitimately great talent. The people drawn to them either to worship or gawk at the novelty.
Darryl Zero is such a man. The self proclaimed greatest private investigator in the world (as if there were a credible, objective, ranking) has sealed himself off from society, locked behind steel doors and computer terminals. The whole act is a dramatic act of validation. The only people who wind up in his orbit are clients must fight for his attentions with large sums of money, or Steve Arlo (Ben Stiller) who handles all face to face interactions with these clients and is fully convinced in Zero’s brilliance.
The client this time is Gregory Stark, a wealthy man being blackmailed regularly for $100k a drop. The payments coincided with the theft of his keys to a safe deposit box. He’s willing to pay Darryl’s exorbitant fees to get to the bottom of the situation while remaining coy to his past transgressions.
Zero Effect is filmed competently, soaking up just enough from its Portland setting to get distinctive. The best thing to be said about the visuals is that they don’t get in the way. The real show here are the knobby plot twists. Zero Effect plays a game that adds more pieces to its chessboard after every move.
Darryl Zero plays to all of Bill Pullman’s strengths as an actor. During his long sojourns away from society Zero is a pathetic wreck: hair bedraggled, drug addled, slovenly. Of the characters he assumes while working the case, all have an air of success. He casts himself as an architect and an accountant, slicks his hair back, but like any true recluse can never maintain eye contact with any confidence. Pullman threads each guise of the character with same degree of awkwardness. This is a man who is profoundly uncomfortable in society.
Kim Dickens plays Zero’s natural foil. She’s at the center of the plot, but keeps her tempest internal. She’s far more attuned with the environment than any other character and realizes that the stranger who could deduce her profession at a glance is someone to keep close.
Zero Effect may be the last film before Ben Stiller’s ten year stint as the world’s most bankable comedy actor. He’d still show up in the occasional supporting role, but never again as a straight man framing the lunacy around him.