Daryl Zero is, by his own astute estimation, the world's greatest private investigator. He can tell what you do for a living by the smell of your skin. He can size up your emotional state by the way you move on a treadmill. He solves mysteries of global import with a single phone call. He is also a paranoid, junk-food-devouring, speed-sucking slob who writes impossibly awful power ballads and doesn't know what day of the week it is. Inhabiting the grizzled body of Bill Pullman, he's a modern day Sherlock Holmes, right down to the substance abuse and musical aspirations. So far, so good.
We first see the |berdetective through the eyes of his admiring if endlessly flummoxed Watson, Steve Arlo (Ben Stiller), Zero's emissary and his public face. It is Arlo who sits calmly on the couch at the beginning of "Zero Effect," negotiating with a potential new client with all the self-satisfied assurance of a Good Humor man cruising hell. He ticks off an impressive list of Zero's accomplishments, but he doesn't have to give too hard a sell -- the customer, Gregory Stark (Ryan O'Neal), is practically sweating desperation. Stark's a hugely successful Portland businessman who's lost an incriminating key and is being blackmailed. And that's all he wants to say about it. It's obvious, even to someone whose powers of observation are less than Zero's, that Stark's a scumbag. But he can afford the detective's mind-boggling fees and can live with his eccentric terms -- including Zero's insistence on not actually meeting or speaking with his client.
Or so he says. What's actually going on is a clever deception -- Arlo plays the traditional private dick role of questioner and confidant, while Zero, unknown and unrecognized, shadows his client to find out what he's really hiding. It isn't long before Zero has burrowed his way into Stark's -- and Stark's blackmailer's -- lives, unspooling long-buried secrets and hidden crimes with ease. Fueled on adrenalin and God knows what else, Zero clearly enjoys his work, burying himself behind an unnecessarily endless series of fake IDs and disguises, rifling though other people's drawers and spouting off trivia about fire codes and fingerprints. You get the definite impression Zero doesn't get out much, and when he does, he thinks every day is Halloween. The fun of "Zero Effect" is watching Pullman's face as Zero's mind clicks on each incriminating clue in his path, finding the stuff that's staring us in the face but only he sees. He's working what he calls "the two obs" -- observation and objectivity. But the second ob is compromised when he begins to fall for Gloria (Kim Dickens), an adventure-loving paramedic who believes Zero is a mild mannered accountant. And this is where the movie starts to lose it, bogging down in domestic tribulations and sensitive New Age guy ickiness.
While it might seem unsporting to begrudge a movie hero his official Love Interest, a tender romance doesn't ring quite true when one party has already been established as a whacked out flake. Zero is a guy whose home looks like a cross between Fort Knox and a 7-Eleven, a man who hoards pretzels as if he's preparing for the collapse of the sodium market. To have this wreck of a mastermind reconfigured as a heap of milkshake-sharing, hand-holding goo just doesn't make sense. We understand Zero's attraction to Gloria -- she's a pixie-faced hottie who's smart enough to suspect that her new accountant doesn't know a W2 from WWII, but her charms simply aren't sufficient to transform the seedy Zero into an aw-shucks lovefool. And while Gloria does come complete with the requisite movie dame set of skeletons in the closet, she never fully breaks out of her cipher status. Is she an angel of mercy, a vengeful opportunist, a danger junkie? All of the above? Are we to believe she and Zero are soul mates not because of their quick minds but because of their similarly unpleasant childhoods? It's a relationship that starts promisingly as a bizarro Nick and Nora, then suddenly degenerates into I'm OK, you're OK. And it isn't.
Equally perplexing is Stiller's Arlo -- a close-cropped, caffeinated bundle of nerves forced to play both baby sitter and flunky to an employer profoundly cavalier about sucking his time and energy resources dry. Their relationship is amusing enough to watch -- especially when Zero torments Arlo with deductive critiques of his girlfriend problems and by sending him zig-zagging around on pointless missions. Why does Arlo put up with all of it? We know Arlo's quirks -- he loathes failed creativity so much his major complaint about Zero seems to be his songwriting, and he berates Stark for his college poetry efforts that rhymed "toward" and "bird." But we never know him, mostly because he isn't in the movie enough for us to get to know him. He's barely in his scenes with Zero before he's being sent away again on another trumped-up errand.
Only Stark, with his permanently pinched expression and overeagerness to flaunt his Ivy League cred, emerges as a fully realized character. In O'Neal's clammy hands, he could easily be the same uptight preppie of "Love Story," a few wrong turns and several pounds later. Stark's an asshole archetype -- arrogant in the knowledge he can buy his way out of any situation, and scared shitless that karma itself is going to mow him down.
Ultimately, "Zero Effect" is a one note movie that's been oddly overscored. Had it remained simply a wry, eccentric little private eye story, it could have been a neat updating of the genre. But writer-director Jake Kasdan (whose father, Lawrence, reinvented noir with "Body Heat") heaps on career crises, morality tales, chick-flick-worthy love affairs and -- most devastating of all -- men getting in touch with their feelings. It's a mix messier than the world's greatest detective's bedroom. And it's why, try as it might, "Zero Effect" just doesn't amount to much.