Zero Effect


by Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

Daryl Zero is the world's greatest private detective but, as summed up in today's buzzwords, the man has some serious issues. We learn all about him, good and bad, from two conversations at the start of the film. In the first, Zero's mouthpiece is meeting with a client and giving a sales pitch. (Zero never meets with anyone unless he is assuming a false identity.) In the second conversation, the same mouthpiece is complaining about his eccentric employer while conversing candidly with a close friend, his tongue set free by the twin liberators of trust and alcohol. We learn that Zero really is as good as his billing when it comes to detective work, but is more or less a complete failure - a Zero, if you will - at any form of normal social interaction. He has never been seen with a woman. When not solving a mystery, he is paranoid, tactless, agoraphobic, and delusional. He resides securely behind an impenetrable door which was intended to be a bank vault. If an intruder could somehow breach that barrier, he would then be confronted with an anfractuous maze of doors and corridors. If the intruder could somehow solve the maze and reach the door to Zero's actual residence, he would require about a dozen keys to navigate its locks. The frustrated mouthpiece must navigate these same hurdles just to report to his boss face-to-face.

The film's basic premise intrigues us in the early going, but the narrative is too talky, since the script essentially tells us about Zero through the dual monologues of the mouthpiece, rather than through situations. We get tired of watching a talking head shot, but the concept gets our attention nonetheless.

Once the mouthpiece has made his way to the inner sanctum, we begin to suspect we have been had, and that the film will be nothing more than a surreal farce, an episode of Ace Ventura, Pet Detective, except without the pets. Zero has been playing one of his cacophonous musical compositions and he asks the mouthpiece if he likes it. We already know from the opening monologue that the mouthpiece hates Zero's music, but he tactfully says, "Yes." His body language and the tone of his voice would tell us he is lying even if we had not already heard his frank opinion, but Zero does not seem to notice.

Wait just one second here.

Zero's previous character exposition has already informed us that he is the greatest analyst of human behavior in history, and that he is utterly tactless. Granting those points, Zero must know that the mouthpiece is lying, and must immediately note the lie with a rude remark. But Zero seems utterly clueless to signs that could be picked up by a fifth grader. Huh? So are we to think that everything we have heard about Zero is a lie? No, not at all. Zero later proves to be exactly as first billed. The confusion is caused by a sloppy piece of screenwriting in the early going.

So the film does not get off to an exceptionally good start. First there is too much narration. Then Mr Zero fails to live up to our expectations. Furthermore Daryl Zero and his mouthpiece both seem like asses at that point. I almost gave up on the film right then and there.

I'm glad I didn't because Zero Effect eventually turns out to be a terrific film. Whatever clumsiness was being experienced by the author in those early scenes is overcome completely, and the film evolves into quite a nifty little noir. Zero is hired to find out who is blackmailing a magnate. It turns out that the blackmailer is the good guy (girl, in this case), and the high-rolling client is a murderous ass. It also turns out that the blackmailer is approximately as smart as Zero himself, and engages him in an intriguing little game of cat and mouse. He comes not only to respect her, but to love her as well. That places him squarely on the horns of a dilemma. If he satisfies his client and identifies the blackmailer, the client will kill her. But if he saves the woman he loves, he will sully his impeccable reputation and ruin his perfect record of client satisfaction. Quite the quandary.

Well, Zero is the smartest guy in the world, so we  know he'll figure it all out somehow, but finding out how he does it is what keeps us watching. As we watch, we overcome our initial judgment that Mr Zero is an utter asshole. We even start to like his sardonic mouthpiece, because we realize that working for Daryl Zero is about as demanding as any job has ever been, and even a slick, stylish lawyer may have ideals, sweetness, and a loving relationship at home which is constantly strained by Mr Zero's demands.

The film is inspired by the noir films of the 40s and 50s in that it has a complex narrative, a shady client who is less than forthcoming,  and many plot contrivances, but that particular provenance does not account for the characters. The character of Daryl Zero comes from a completely different world. Zero is not a role to be played by Bogart or Mitchum. Unlike the detectives played by those icons, Zero is never in the dark, never taciturn, never on the edge of poverty, never a mature adult, and never physical. He never throws a punch, and has no idea how to use a handgun. His world is the world of the mind, he's an overgrown kid playing a real-life version of a computer game. Because he works in disguises and false identities and never meets with the clients, nobody but his mouthpiece even knows who he is or what he looks like. In an earlier time he would have been played by someone like Basil Rathbone or Christopher Lee or James Woods, someone cunning, blunt-spoken, aloof and intimidatingly smart, someone we are not supposed to find cuddly.

In short, Zero is Sherlock Holmes a hundred years later. It is no coincidence that the film takes various bits of inspiration from Arthur Conan Doyle's "A Scandal in Bohemia." Conan Doyle, writing through Dr. Watson, said this of Irene Adler: "There was but one woman to (Holmes), and that woman was the late Irene Adler, of dubious and questionable memory. To Sherlock Holmes she is always THE woman. I have seldom heard him mention her under any other name. In his eyes she eclipses and predominates the whole of her sex." The blackmailer in Zero Effect is Daryl Zero's Irene Adler, and his diary entry about her reads,  "She is the only woman I ... (pause for correction) ... She is the only woman."

Of course, Zero Effect is a much funnier film than anything we might expect from Sherlock Holmes. Yes, it is a mystery and an offbeat love story, but it also includes many comic elements, as you can deduce from my description of Zero's apartment building. It walks the line between comedy and noir, and does so quite effectively. That's a difficult line to walk, and it's amazing that a 23-year-old making his maiden voyage as a writer/director maintained his balance on that line and rarely slipped up, because that kind of challenge has defeated many an old industry pro.

In creating this film, young Jake Kasdan, did about as well in the role of first-time film auteur as anyone in history not named Welles. It is downright astounding that a film this good, this smart, and this much fun to watch was basically the work of one guy about the age of a college senior. Of course, Kasdan has some pretty good genes workin' for him. His dad Lawrence wrote a few films you may have heard of: The Empire Strikes Back, Body Heat, Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Big Chill ... 

But genes or no genes, the kid still had to get the job done. And that he did.


* Two versions: full-screen and widescreen anamorphic.

* Full-length commentary by writer/director Jake Kasdan.



2.5 James Berardinelli (of 4 stars)
3.5 Roger Ebert (of 4 stars)
68 Rotten Tomatoes  (% positive)








6.8 IMDB summary (of 10)
B Yahoo Movies











Box Office Mojo. It received an arthouse run (129 theaters) and grossed only $2 million.












  • None





Our Grade:

If you are not familiar with our grading system, you need to read the explanation, because the grading is not linear. For example, by our definition, a C is solid and a C+ is a VERY good movie. There are very few Bs and As. Based on our descriptive system, this film is a:


An underappreciated film, perhaps because it is a multi-genre curiosity which combines noir, romance, and comedy.