Zero Effect is a 1998 mystery comedy film written and directed by Jake Kasdan. It stars Bill Pullman as "the world's most private detective", Daryl Zero, and Ben Stiller as his assistant Steve Arlo. The plot of the film is loosely based on the Arthur Conan Doyle short story "A Scandal in Bohemia".
The film was shot in Portland, Oregon. It was scored by The Greyboy Allstars. It was screened in the Un Certain Regard section at the 1998 Cannes Film Festival.
Daryl Zero is the world's greatest detective, but is also a socially maladroit misanthrope. Among his quirks is that he never meets or has direct contact with his clients, instead conducting business through his assistant, Steve Arlo. Throughout the movie, Zero provides narration as he reads lines from his proposed autobiography.
Zero and Arlo are hired by Portland area millionaire Gregory Stark. Stark has lost the key to a safe deposit box and is being blackmailed by an unknown person who forces him to follow elaborate instructions to deliver the cash payments. Zero quickly discovers that the blackmailer is Gloria Sullivan, an EMT with a mysterious past. Zero becomes attracted to Gloria and they sleep together, compromising his trademark objectivity. He lets his guard down and tells her that his abusive father killed his mother and himself.
Stark pressures Arlo to reveal the blackmailer's identity so that he can have that person killed. Arlo must also deal with Zero's absurd demands on his time, which increasingly interfere with Arlo's relationship with his girlfriend Jess.
Zero eventually discovers that Stark had raped Gloria's mother after she broke up with him. She later blackmailed Stark with the threat of exposing him as a rapist, so he had her killed. However, she had already given birth to their daughter Gloria, who was discovered and raised by the hitman who killed her mother. Gloria grew up knowing that Stark was behind her mother's murder, and when her adoptive father contracted a terminal illness, she used the information to pay for medical treatment.
At the meeting to deliver the final blackmail payment, Stark collapses from a heart attack and Gloria is compelled to save his life. She then flees the country with Zero's assistance.
Released in January 1998, the official soundtrack for the film includes:
"Mystery Dance" – Elvis Costello
"One Dance" – Dan Bern
"Starbucked" – Bond
"Into My Arms" – Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
"Some Jingle Jangle Morning" – Mary Lou Lord
"Emma J" – Brendan Benson
"The Method Pt. 2" – The Greyboy Allstars
"Drifting Along" – Jamiroquai
"Till You Die" – Candy Butchers
"Lounge" – Esthero
"Blackmail Drop" – The Greyboy Allstars
"Three Days" – Thermadore
"Rest My Head Against the Wall" – Heatmiser
"The Zero Effect" – The Greyboy Allstars
Rotten Tomatoes, a review aggregator, reports that 64% of 47 surveyed critics gave the film a positive review; the average rating is 6.6/10. The site's consensus reads: "A promising debut for writer/director Jake Kasdan, Zero Effect overcomes its flaws with its off-kilter humor and likeable leads." Leonard Klady of Variety called it "scattershot entertainment that misses as often as it hits its targets". Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times rated 3.5/4 stars and wrote that he was surprised by how involved he became in the film. Janet Maslin of The New York Times wrote of the film's focus on the relation between Pullman and Stiller, "For all its admirable ambitions, this loosely focused first feature has the makings of a better buddy story than detective tale anyhow." Jack Matthews of the Los Angeles Times called it "a confident first film and one of the freshest detective yarns to come along in a while". Ruthe Stein of The San Francisco Chronicle rated it 2/4 stars and called it "more an interesting idea for a detective movie than it is an interesting film". Lisa Schwarzbaum of Entertainment Weekly rated it C+ and called it "a very shaggy and minor comedy". Geoff Andrew of Time Out London wrote, "Kasdan's is a very promising debut, its own dearth of feeling offset by able writing, engaging playing and a sure sense of pace."