More Than Zero
Catch "Zero Effect" before it vanishes.
By Jim Ridley, Noel Murray, and Donna Bowman
MARCH 9, 1998: The fluky comedy-thriller Zero Effect is getting a weak release across the country, which means it'll only be a matter of time before it joins that select group of hard-to-classify cult items that were dumped by major studios-a list that includes Repo Man and Miami Blues. Zero Effect doesn't have the manic highs of those scuzzy classics; it never explodes into outright farce or outright frenzy. But it has great charm and imagination, an intriguingly off-kilter tone, and above all a fully realized comic performance by Bill Pullman, an actor who's been wasted too many times in suffering second-banana roles.
Pullman plays Daryl Zero, a brilliant detective who commands astronomical fees but never leaves the safety of his fortified penthouse headquarters. As his exasperated assistant (Ben Stiller) explains to clients, Zero has extraordinary analytical gifts. He's also a thoughtless dweeb with frightwig hair and scarier manners. Zero is content never to face the outside world until an Oregon timber magnate (Ryan O'Neal) contracts the master sleuth to find some missing keys-a nothing task that draws Zero into the path of a mysterious, bewitching...paramedic.
That the femme fatale Gloria-a punky, vulnerable sprite played by former Nashville actress Kim Dickens-isn't the regulation pulp-fiction bombshell is only one of the neat changes wreaked on the genre by writer-director Jake Kasdan, here making his feature debut. Zero Effect is less a film-noir goof than a tip of the deerstalker to the locked-room puzzles of Arthur Conan Doyle-even if Pullman's Zero better resembles the paranoid, drug-addled Sherlock Holmes of Nicholas Meyer's revisionist novels.
Most young film-school grads making crime movies have forsaken the procedural mystery for the fatalistic cool of noir thrillers-not out of any philosophical bent, but because B-movie pulp is more of a director's medium, all lust and blood and bang! bang! cold light. (It's also easier to write and cheaper to film.) Zero Effect, on the other hand, is definitely a writer's movie. Kasdan isn't content with his cleverly constructed headscratcher of a plot; he fills the movie's downtime with scatter-gun sprays of inspiration-funny names, past exploits (e.g., the Case of the Man With Mismatched Shoelaces), the lousy rock songs Zero caterwauls in his lair. This is the first detective thriller in which the super-sleuth and his quarry size up one another over a milkshake.>
As for the lead, Bill Pullman has the kind of broad, slightly bland looks that could pass for a sitcom dad's cookie-cutter cuteness. They're offset by two squinty marble eyes that can simmer with irrational perversity, but he didn't get to use them much playing dreary nice-guy also-rans in the likes of Malice and Sleepless in Seattle. But like David Lynch in the underrated Lost Highway, Jake Kasdan was sharp enough to see that Pullman is one of the only leading actors around who can look at once appealing and totally bonkers.
Pullman does a much better job of communicating genius than, say, Matt Damon, who in Good Will Hunting glibly rattles off trivia without showing a trace of obsessive temperament. Pullman's quizzical expressions and explosive zero-to-60 line readings show an eccentric but ingenious mind constantly in motion; he suggests that becoming a lonely, ill-mannered technogeek is the burden of brilliance. At the same time, he embodies the movie's deadpan absurdist tone. There's a shot of Zero in businessman disguise running alongside the timber baron on a health-club treadmill: I don't know how Pullman does it, but something about the robotic pumping of his limbs and his gung-ho sneakiness made me laugh out loud.
You can't fault Columbia Pictures, the movie's distributor, for puzzling over how to market this wild card: It's most lovable when it abandons the pretense of being a thriller, and yet it remains a detective movie even when the plot vanishes into a disarmingly sweet romance. And yet Columbia spent a lot more care promoting the lumpen Palmetto, a movie with twists and turns that aren't nearly so entertaining, let alone surprising. That means you have one more week to catch Zero Effect on a single screen at Carmike's Bellevue 8, while Palmetto has received a widespread release all over town at more than a half-dozen theaters. Why does a strikingly original puzzle-box of a movie get dumped in favor of a laborious genre retread? The mysteries of major-studio releasing would tax even a Daryl Zero.
In my recurring dream, I'm wandering through the commercial district of some labyrinthine college town, browsing in junk shops that are vaguely familiar to me. Typically, I stumble across a room I've never noticed before, and in it are comic books, or CDs, or video games, or strippers. The point is this: When I tell people about this dream, just about everyone identifies. The "secret city" dream is as much a part of our collective subconscious as "the final exam in the class I forgot to attend," or "the day I walked out of the house in my underwear."
Now Alex Proyas (director of The Crow) has committed the "secret city" dream to film in Dark City, which he cowrote and directed. In a mysterious nocturnal metropolis, the populace collapses into sleep each night at the stroke of midnight. When they awake, their city has been rebuilt and rearranged, and their own lives and memories have been shuffled. Yesterday's milkman is today's cabdriver, and if he can't quite remember the way to the airport, that's because the streets have been changed and there was never an airport to begin with.
The rationale behind this perpetually bizarre turn of events remains a mystery until about an hour into Proyas' film, and far be it from me to tip it here. Suffice to say that it involves a race of pale, bald telekinetics called "The Strangers," a double-dealing psychiatrist (played by a mouth-breathing, stammering Kiefer Sutherland), and an amalgam of about a dozen Twilight Zone episodes. Caught up in The Strangers' nefarious scheme are an amnesiac (Rufus Sewell) implicated in a string of prostitute murders; a nightclub singer (Jennifer Connelly) who may be his wife; and a police detective (William Hurt) who is trying simultaneously to track down the serial killer and to put together the pieces of everyone's puzzling existence.
Dark City is a visual marvel, with design elements drawn from '30s futurism and '40s film noir. Proyas has obviously studied Blade Runner and Brazil, both for their art direction and their stylish fatalism. In fact, one of Dark City's greatest weaknesses (as with The Crow) is the way Proyas indulges a mopey teenager's flair for despair. He fails to understand how a somnambulant city could be appealing to some; the film needs a little of Ben Katchor's Julius Knipl-style nostalgia, wherein our collective memory of the past is both spooky and warm.
The film's other great weakness is an ending that fails to live up to the fantastic premise. It would be impossible, really, to close this book satisfyingly, but for a story so centered on the human mind to feature a climax right out of a Hanna-Barbera adventure cartoon-heroes and villains essentially blasting each other with "energy rays"-is, well, a cop-out.
Plotting aside, though, Dark City succeeds exactly on the level at which it is pitched-the subconscious. The magnificent set design and spiraling maze of its concept-leading ever inward, away from escape-resonates in that part of the filmgoer that has ever woken up in a fog and looked around in vain for the places, people, and possessions that existed just moments ago in his mind.
Appalling in premise and execution, Krippendorf's Tribe is a glorification of scientific dishonesty and cultural insensitivity masquerading as a family comedy. Richard Dreyfuss plays James Krippendorf, an anthropologist who accepts a $100,000 grant to find a lost tribe in New Guinea, but forgets after the death of his wife that he has to produce some research. With the help of an ambitious and amorous colleague, he fakes some footage using his three children in blackface and hits the anthropological big time.
Disney, proud parent of Little Indian, Big City and Jungle 2 Jungle, assigned Charlie Peters' script to their Touchstone division, no doubt because of the constant repetition of the word "penis." If they're going to make brand-new films with this level of brazen political incorrectness, their refusal to rerelease Song of the South is incomprehensible.
Dreyfuss appears to have modeled his acting style after the throaty mumblings of the Max Fleischer-era Popeye. Jenna Elfman, so luminous on ABC's Wednesday-night treasure Dharma and Greg, does her best, but she's stuck with a boilerplate role that almost renders her charming aggressiveness unpleasant. Ah-just thinking about Dharma and Greg almost makes the pain go away. (If you take nothing else away from this review, remember this: Wednesday nights, your TV should be tuned to ABC from 7 until 9.)
There is a funny moment in Krippendorf's Tribe, but if you blink, you'll miss it. A science magazine puts the lost tribe on its cover, and as the characters pass it around you can make out the titles of the magazine's other features, like "Hydroponics: Not Again." There's more imagination in the prop department than anywhere else in this sad, frantic movie.
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