With Zero Effect--an apt title if ever there was one--writer-director Jake Kasdan presumes to turn the hard-boiled detective movie on its head with Gen-X hipness. He winds up looking pretty empty-headed himself.
Kasdan, the 22-year-old son of Big Chill/ Accidental Tourist director Lawrence Kasdan, would likely never have gotten his puerile script more than three feet from the word processor were it not for Dad's considerable pull in showbiz. But that's only one reason to scorn it.
The supercilious Kasdan the Younger, for one thing, clearly descends from David Letterman's brand of world-weary disengagement. So his supposedly brilliant private eye, a neurotic, arrogant recluse named Daryl Zero (Bill Pullman, the president who flew the fighter jet in Independence Day), is so fashionably detached from everyone and everything that he does business through a frontman named Steve Arlo (Ben Stiller). Kasdan is so thoroughly ironic in a postmodern, L.A. way that Zero's past triumphs include "the case of the man with mismatched shoelaces" and "the case of the hired gun who made too many mistakes."
Now he's taken on what might be called "the case of the lumber tycoon who lost his keys." That would be Ryan O'Neal--disinterred from the failed actors' cemetery for this--whose Gregory Stark simply refuses to provide any clues or hints whatsoever to his employee. Little matter. Our genius op, who spends his nights sitting alone in the dark gulping amphetamines and Tab, doesn't need any help. The otherwise dysfunctional Zero is so instinctual, Kasdan would have us believe, that he merely needs to turn on his twisted mental apparatus to pick up a trail of murder, blackmail and betrayal. It's not a very convincing conceit. Meanwhile, there's a physical therapist named Gloria (Kim Dickens), and if you can figure out what she's doing in the movie, have at it.
Naturally, the whole mess is set in rainy Portland--probably because Kasdan knows that not many movies have been set in Portland, and if there's anything he likes, it's being different. Even if different doesn't mean good.
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Want to hear the way Daryl Zero, postmodern private eye, talks? Here's a sample: "While there is a certain warm aroma that wafts through the halls of well-deserved recognition (i.e., claiming my place as the greatest private investigator in the world), the whole experience is sort of an enormous affront to the very institution of confidentiality."
Okay, and if Philip Marlowe were still around, he'd give you a smack in the kisser. Which brings us to a few last words on this particular bomb. They come from Raymond Chandler, Mr. Marlowe's creator and the past master of private-eye fiction. "To exceed the limits of a formula without destroying it is the dream of every magazine writer who is not a hopeless hack," Chandler said in 1950. Substitute "movie director" for "magazine writer" and you've still got a pretty fair working principle for the detective genre. Substitute young Kasdan for, say, John Huston, though, and you've got wanton formula destruction masquerading as fresh sensibility.
Written and directed by Jake Kasdan. With Bill Pullman, Ben Stiller, Ryan O'Neal and Kim Dickens.