Of all the iconic characterizations in fiction, The Detective is one of the most pervasive. Who doesn't enjoy watching someone of extraordinary mental capacity examine this tangled web we humans weave, sort out its many threads and assign proper blame to the baddies and exoneration to the innocent? The Detective is the personification of one of civilization's most prized dreams — justice.
Although many claim the modern conception of The Detective began with Edgar Allan Poe's stories of the fictional C. Auguste Dupin (first appearing in "The Murders in the Rue Morgue"), it arguably came to its apex with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes. One can trace elements of every great detective since, from Philip Marlowe to Colombo to Monk to any of the CSI-ers or Law & Order-ers gracing our televisions, back to this quintessence of gumshoehood. Holmes is no stranger to the visual mediums himself, having been played over the years by, amongst others, Basil Rathbone, Peter Cushing, Jeremy Brett, and, in theaters soon, Robert Downey, Jr. However, one of my all-time favorite portrayals of Sherlock Holmes is in a movie that, well, Sherlock Holmes isn't in.
I'm referring to Zero Effect, the 1998 film starring Ryan O'Neal, Ben Stiller, and Bill Pullman as the incomparable Sherlock Holm… er, Darryl Zero. The movie updates Sherlock Holmes, specifically many elements from "A Scandal in Bohemia," into the west coast of the late '90s.
The film wears its Holmes homage on its sleeve. Darryl Zero is distant and objective, removing himself from the passions of common man (outside of occasional manic-depressive mood swings), which is advantageous while pursuing a case, but problematic when it comes to interpersonal relationships. Zero is a drug abuser, although he has traded in Holmes' "seven percent solution" and morphine with amphetamines. He is a master of disguise, able to hide in plain sight from anyone, including himself. The film also has more than a few inside jokes for the big Sherlock fans in the audience. (In particular watch for the way writer/director Jake Kasdan twists Holmes' description of Irene Adler as "The Woman" to Darryl Zero's jokey yet heartbreaking "She was the only woman. Period.")
The case is simple: Big time industrialist Gregory Stark (Ryan O'Neal) is missing his keys. Amongst them is a key for a safety deposit box containing incriminating evidence linking Mr. Stark to a crime for which he is now being blackmailed, and Mr. Stark would like his keys back.
I'll try to avoid too many spoilers, but one of the film's great strengths is that writer/director Kasdan (Lawrence's son) has a deep understanding of one of the primary rules of creating a good mystery: it doesn't matter who did it. If all that matters in your mystery is whodunit, then your whole endeavor can be ruined in three words: ___ did it. However, if you use your mystery as a backdrop for examining characters' motivations, the workings of society or the very philosophical quandaries of existence, well then, who cares who pulled the trigger? The crime should always, always be a MacGuffin. Kasdan even makes light of this, in that halfway through the film you already know who the blackmailer is and (in a rather sly move) where the keys are.
The joy of watching the movie is having all of the fully fleshed-out characters reach moments of dynamic, dramatic crisis, and then have those crises collide together with everyone else's. Even given that Jake Kasdan is the son of one of Hollywood's heavy hitters, the fact that this was his first film is staggering. The writing is consistently good, and even, at times, exemplary. There is a scene late in the film where Zero has dinner with Gloria Sullivan (Kim Dickens), a woman of great interest. The two talk around each other, both knowing more than they're letting on, but both also letting on more than they know. It's a quiet scene in which major revelations are revealed in a deft, almost casual style. These two people who have spent so much of their lives behind carefully constructed walls finally decide to reveal themselves — not entirely, but as much as they are able.
The scene also reveals the film's greatest strength, which is also its greatest weakness. Although Kasdan is a fantastic writer, he is a merely capable director. The film has a very flat, workmanlike style. Every moment lands exactly as is necessary, but nothing has any particular shine. It is indicative of the movie as a whole that most of it is set in Portland. Nothing against the city, but where most detective stories are set within the bustling hustle of a grandiose metropolis or the dirt and grime of a den of thieves, Portland seems, well, quaint. Perhaps Kasdan is to be commended, as working within the detective genre can lead one down the slippery slope of over-stylization and dull, over-used tropes. However, for all his avoidance of those pitfalls, he doesn't fill in that stylistic hole with anything else. There are times, though, where simple and straightforward is best, which is why the restaurant scene remains a superb moment, not because of any grandiose stylization, but in the way it focuses in on simple human interaction.
I should be quick to point out that although the film falls a bit flat stylistically, that doesn't mean it is in any way dull. The story moves at a fun, fast clip, and the whole thing is buoyed by brilliant performances. It should be noted, in discussing Ben Stiller's role in the film, that this movie came out the same year as Permanent Midnight, Your Friends and Neighbors, and There's Something About Mary. Though Mr. Stiller has shown he can oscillate between broad comedies and more nuanced, dramatic fare, the former have come to far outweigh the latter. Although I enjoy Mr. Stiller's more overtly comedic work (Zoolander and Tropic Thunder in particular), his work in films like these is fantastic, and sorely missed. His gift for humor is never far off, but is used to develop and flesh out a character of complexity and conflict.
The film is also a wonderful showcase for Kim Dickens, a terribly underrated and underused actress who, outside of her fantastic turn as Joanie Stubbs on Deadwood, has largely slipped into supporting roles and brief stints on television shows. Her work in this film shows a finely-tuned understanding of a woman of great, conflicting passions.
And then there is Bill Pullman, an actor who is at best under-appreciated and at worst dismissed as "boring." It's a special kind of talent to be able to glide effortlessly from romantic comedy (While You Were Sleeping) to massive action blockbuster (Independence Day) to working with one of the cinema's most confounding auteurs (Lost Highway). It is my summation that Mr. Pullman is one of those artists who is unfairly maligned simply because they make it look easy. His performance here is a joy to watch. He plays Darryl Zero's maladjusted personality like the high-wire act it would be, perilously walking the fine line between a borderline egomaniacal know-it-all whose brilliance is both help and hindrance, and a wounded soul who cordons himself off from others while keeping a tenacious grasp on Stiller's Steve Arlo, his one ally. Also, he's funny. Crazy funny. He uses his massive wave of hair as an unending source of tosses, styles, and punctuations, his eyes go from drugged haze to startled realizations with a snap, he plays his body in a variety of staccato rhythms and delivers line readings that are unexpected, hilarious, and tragic while never being showy or out of character. It's a stellar performance.
The whole thing pays off in a finely executed, humanistic ending where the bad may not necessarily get everything that they deserve, but then again neither do the good. It is a conclusion of great understanding, not just of the whodunits and the hows and the whys, but of the true nature of the people involved. Sherlock Holmes would be proud.