Twenty-five years ago this month, everybody and their momma were at the multiplexes watching Titanic.
James Cameron’s catastrophic love story was a monster hit/pop-culture phenomenon, topping the weekend box-office lists for most of 1998’s first quarter. And because Titanic continued to rake in money, a lot of movies that came out around that time tanked and are now forgotten. It’s bad enough that those first couple months of the new year are usually when studios dump films they want to get rid of into theaters. But a lot of these flicks came and went with a special quickness during this time. The Denzel Washington supernatural thriller Fallen. Alfonso Cuaron’s hot-and-heavy adaptation of Great Expectations, starring Ethan Hawke and Gwyneth Paltrow. The wet-ass, cops-and-robbers yarn Hard Rain. Before I mentioned these movies, did you know any of them existed? (I will say that Half Baked and The Big Lebowski—two stoner movies, coincidentally—were released around this time and maintain a cult rep.)
One film that unfortunately got a grand opening/grand closing a quarter-century ago this month was Zero Effect, the debut film from Jake Kasdan, the son of filmmaker Lawrence Kasdan—which, according to TikTok, unfortunately makes him a “nepo baby.” Actually, several nepo babies worked on this film. Lisa Henson, the daughter of Muppets creator Jim Henson, was one of the producers. Ben Stiller, the son of comedy duo Anne Meara and Jerry Stiller, stars as Steve Arlo. He’s the representative of the movie’s main character, Daryl Zero (Bill Pullman).
Zero gets hired to locate the keys of a wealthy Portland businessman (Ryan O’Neal, convincingly douchey), who’s also being blackmailed by an unknown person. Even though Arlo assures the businessman that he’s hiring the world’s greatest detective, Arlo knows that Zero is a freakin’ mess. The movie begins with Arlo talking up Zero’s accomplishments to the businessman, but occasionally cutting away to Arlo in a bar, unloading to a drinking buddy about how much of a self-centered nutcase his boss is. When we eventually meet Zero, standing on his bed, strumming some bad love song (written by Kasdan and Pullman) on a guitar in his heavily secured bunker of a penthouse apartment, we immediately know what Arlo is going through.
Zero heads to Portland to investigate the case, often sending Arlo back and forth to L.A. on errands, frustrating both Arlo and his girlfriend (Angela Featherstone). Zero soon discovers that a paramedic named Gloria Sullivan (Kim Dickens) has been doing the blackmailing. As he gets close to her to learn more, the self-proclaimed “greatest observer the world has ever known” soon becomes part of this tangled web.
If this Zero character sounds a bit too much like Sherlock Holmes, that’s because Kasdan based this story on the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle story “A Scandal in Bohemia,” where Holmes first meets his notorious adversary Irene Adler. You could say Kasdan was the first to get on the Sherlock train, as adaptations would show up in both film (Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes, starring Robert Downey, Jr.) and TV (Sherlock, Elementary) over a decade later. (When this $5 million film tanked at the box office, only taking in $2 million, Kasdan co-wrote and directed a TV pilot in 2002, with Alan Cumming as Zero.)
Zero had its fans and foes upon its release. Roger Ebert gave it three-and-a-half stars and called it “increasingly delightful,” while Entertainment Weekly’s Lisa Schwarzbaum graded it a C+ and said it’s “a very shaggy and minor comedy.” If there was ever such a thing as “hipster noir,” Effect falls in that genre. Kasdan hired soul-jazz collective The Greyboy Allstars to come up with the stylishly mid-tempo score. I could see why execs at Columbia (who released the film) would have trouble trying to market this picture. It plays like a savvy-but-slow detective story from the ‘70s. (Fans of Arthur Penn’s beloved Gene Hackman mystery Night Moves would probably love the hell out of this.) Kasdan certainly pulls out a lot of visually snazzy tricks to show that he’s his own man and not aping his daddy. On the director’s commentary, he does credit a “rodent-cam” shot, where the camera snakes around the restaurant at floor level, to his dad. (“Some people, it’s their favorite shot in the movie,” he says. “Some people hate it.”)
Pullman and Stiller make for an acceptable night-and-day duo. Stiller’s long-suffering Arlo is the sane yin to Pullman’s insane yang. Although the man can assume different, regular identities, slipping in and out of locations without people noticing, Zero is an intolerable, paranoid, amphetamine-gnashing asshole when he’s stuck with himself. (Zero also has an odd thing for sitting and slinking on the floor.) And, yet, Pullman—one of the most likable actors ever to surface in the movies—makes us root for this dickish dick, especially when he starts to fall for Dickens’ pixie-haired femme fatale.
Although the younger Kasdan has gone on to direct movies like Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story and the Dwayne Johnson/Kevin Hart Jumanji movies (as well as episodes of Freaks and Geeks, New Girl and Fresh off the Boat), I’ll always know him as the guy who made a cool movie about an uncool private eye that was trampled at the box office because people couldn’t get enough of Leo and Kate, falling in love while a boat sank.
Craig D. Lindsey is a Houston-based writer. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @unclecrizzle.