Zero Effect (1998): a pre-Sherlockian masterpiece

So Masterpiece Mystery has begun airing what will likely be the last episodes of Sherlock, Steve Moffat’s long celebrated television series about Sherlock Holmes in modern times. Starring who at the onset was a relatively unknown but is now a legitimate box office superstar Benedict Cumberbatch (or as one of my friends likes to call him, Benedict Cabbagepatch) and Martin Freeman, Sherlock over the years became quite a sensation, celebrated by fans of the world’s greatest detective and of Moffat’s writing and production style.

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And I admit I greatly enjoyed the first season. It was exciting, clever (oh, so clever), with a strong cast and good writing. And then season two happened, and my interest waned. Making Moriarty crazy made him boring (crazy is the laziest motivation one can give a villain; frankly, I’m shocked Batman’s Joker is still relevant), and making Irene Adler a love interest of Sherlock made her equally as dull, not to mention making her a criminal is so against type as to be, well, criminal in itself. Anyone who’s read “A Scandal in Bohemia” knows Irene has zero interest in Holmes; she simply wants to be left alone. And she’s not the criminal: she is the aggrieved party. I was left with the realization that beyond all the “clever” dialogue and manic pace, Sherlock simply is not as good as people think. In fact, Zero Effect did it better in every way.

For those of you who have never heard of it, Zero Effect is a 1998 movie directed, produced and written by Jake Kasdan and starring Bill Pullman and Ben Stiller. The plot is that Darryl Zero is the world’s greatest, most private detective who never meets his clients and works instead through his proxy, lawyer Steve Arlo (Stiller).

The reason for this is Darryl has great difficulty dealing with people, but also he finds that his clients often lie to him and the best way to learn what’s really going on is to interact with them when they don’t realize who he really is.

So, brilliant detective with difficulty dealing with people, long suffering assistant, and working with the knowledge that their clients lie. If this sounds like Monk, House, Sherlock, Elementary, or any of a host of TV shows inspired by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s greatest creation, congratulations, you aren’t just imagining things. The thing is, Zero Effect came out in 1998, years before any of those other properties, which is why when I do watch those shows, I can’t help but thinking of Kasdan’s film, and to be honest, I find them all lacking in comparison.

I realize part of the reason is that these are TV shows we’re talking about, and it’s necessary for producers to maintain the status quo; Monk can never get better (until the final episode, that is, in a lackluster series finale), House must always be an irascible dick, Sherlock is always a “high functioning sociopath” (I would love to sit down with a psychiatrist and have him watch the show so I could find out if that’s how high functioning sociopaths really act. Somehow, I doubt it. Then again, I don’t think anybody really acts or talks like Moffat-written characters). Character development is virtually nonexistent, so over time, what began as interesting people seem to turn into self-parodies of themselves, or their ridiculous behavior becomes so outrageous that what becomes even more unrealistic is how they could still have friends or colleagues willing to work with them. I can recall watching the second-to-last season of House and enjoying the relationship between the titular character and Cutty, only to scream in frustration as by season’s end all we got was essentially a big reset button. Don’t get me started on the last season; it’s dead to me.

In contrast, with Zero Effect, it tells a story and it’s finished, leaving me wanting more rather than it going on, and on, and on long after its initial clever premise gets old. It’s an entertaining, effective mystery, and we have a resolution at the end, done. No sequels, no TV shows (although Kasdan did make a 2002 pilot, and I’m wondering if that had any effect on the Monk TV series that aired beginning that year), and it leaves the stage before its act gets old.

The plot of the movie is as follows. Attorney Steve Arlo meets with a prospective client, businessman Gregory Stark (played by the always amazing Ryan O’Neal).

Arlo explains to Stark who Darryl Zero is, and how he never meets his clients face-to-face, but assures him that despite his strange methods, he always gets results. O’Neal is convinced and he hires Zero via his proxy. The case? Find Stark’s keys.

Hey, does that sound like a weird Sherlock-y type plot to you?

Zero discovers O’Neal is being blackmailed by someone, and it seems to have something to do with the missing keys. As Zero studies his client up close…

…and tries to get to the bottom of who’s blackmailing Stark and why, he comes to realize that it has to do with a dark secret from his client’s past, a secret he might be willing to kill to keep. I admit that the plot is not wholly original; I mentioned “A Scandal In Belgravia/Bohemia” earlier, and it does feel a bit like Kasdan might have been, um, “inspired” a bit by that story. When Zero meets the woman involved in O’Neal’s life, Gloria Sullivan (played by House of Cards/Fear the Walking Dead’s Kim Dickens)…

…he realizes that maybe he’s working for the wrong client. Finding the keys was the easy part, uncovering the hows and whys over everyone involved is a bit trickier. I don’t want to go much further into the plot of Zero Effect than that; instead, I strongly urge you to find a copy and watch it (I have no idea whether or not it’s on Netflix; I know you can watch it on Amazon for four bucks). I guess if you really, really want to know the entire plot, you could look it up on Wikipedia, but I do hope you treat yourself and devote two hours of your life to this film. It’s a fantastic movie and I feel both Pullman and Stiller are very much on top of their game here. It is an engaging mystery, and considering the flood of modern day Sherlock Holmes-styled series that we’ve seen crop up in the past fifteen years or so, it feels very much ahead of its time.

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  • Jonathan Campbell

    “Sherlock is always a “high functioning sociopath” (I would love to sit down with a psychiatrist and have him watch the show so I could find out if that’s how high functioning sociopaths really act.”

    “High functioning sociopath” is a term they made up for the show.

    Also, sociopaths tend to be angry, vengeful, hot headed, hard hearted, reckless and impulsive.

    Sherlock is emotionless, vain, cool headed, calculating, and flaunts his intellectual superiority. Probably not a sociopath at all.

    More likely a narcissist, who made up the term because he thought it sounded cool (Watsonian explanation).

    • mamba

      Not necessarily true…Spock was a literal “high functioning sociopath” too.

      He had no social skills whatsoever and no empathy towards others at all. He was oblivious to social cues and “banter”, didn’t even pretend to understand “feelings” and “emotions” and in general “people”. Therefore he was a sociopath.

      But Spock was “highly functional” and even superior to others around him. He wasn’t a recluse nor violent (amok time notwithstanding, trekkies), so I think the term can apply

      • Jonathan Campbell

        None of those things alone make someone a sociopath and Spock most definitely was not such a thing. Spock had low cognitive empathy but decent emotional empathy – sociopaths tend to be the reverse- and he most certainly had genuine affection for friends like Jim and even Bones. He was fully prepared to risk his life for his fellow crewmembers and clearly had ethical principles.

        You are confusing being a sociopath with having Aspergers, which Spock resembles much better though of course likely doesn’t actually have, since Spock is a Vulcan and much of his traits are cultural and at the very least exaggerated as a result.

        Sociopath is a medically obsolete term anyway unless one uses it as a synonym for Anti-Social Personality Disorder, and either way Spock definitely does not qualify for that. There is way more to this condition than what you have listed, and neither Spock nor Sherlock fit the bill (the latter fits better, but I’d still argue he doesn’t qualify).

      • You need to take a look at the DSM. Seriously, Spock is the LEAST sociopathic character on Star Trek. A sociopath would NEVER consider the idea that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one.

  • Mort Brewster

    1998 was way back when I went to the movies every week, and ‘Zero Effect’ was one of the movies I was lucky enough to discover in the theater. I liked it quite a bit from the start, and I have watched it several time since then. It was on one of the cable channels the other day, as a matter of fact, and it sucked me in again.

    So, you know, I wholeheartedly endorse your recommendation.

  • ussafs3

    Saw that back when I had mail-order Netflix. Awesome movie. Never understood why Bill Pullman never got more props as an actor. He was absolutely hilarious in “Ruthless People.”