Jake Kasdan was born to make film noir as the son of legendary writer/director Lawrence Kasdan (The Big Chill, The Accidental Tourist). Kasdan Sr. helped reinvigorate the classic genre with his sexy update of Double Indemnity-- Body Heat, which launched the careers of Kathleen Turner and William Hurt. And like his father, Jake is also a writer/director and in 1998 at the age of twenty-three, he released a debut so dazzling, so quirky, so ingenious that it’s evident that the apple did not fall far from the tree.
Zero Effect has what--as a writer-- I would call a perfect opening ten minutes of hilarious dialogue, mysterious set-ups and contradictions so intense that I was on the edge of my seat again and I’ve seen the film half a dozen times since it’s one of the first DVDs I ever purchased.
The film stars Bill Pullman as a reclusive detective so talented that he once solved a case from an hour of desk-work, picking up the phone and calling a man directly who had been missing for years.
Unfortunately, like some extraordinarily bright men, he’s a disaster in his social life, a bear in personal relationships and as his one and only employee Ben Stiller says, has probably never kissed a woman and remains terrified of the dry cleaners.
Yet although he’s admittedly uncomfortable in his own skin, on the case, he’s amazingly smooth and Pullman takes over narrating while writing his memoirs--revealing secrets to the audience including his not-so-humble proclamation that he’s "the greatest observer the world has ever known."
His case takes him from lonely L.A. to Portland where a rich businessman has lost his keys and is being blackmailed—the case, as noir dictates, involves an attractive, mysterious woman with secrets all her own but as critic Janet Maslin states, the casting of Kim Dickens as a lanky no-nonsense, straightforward woman helps benefit the tired fatale role. Maslin continues that the film seems to be a play on the classic tales of Sherlock Holmes with Pullman as a zany Holmes and Stiller as the sidekick Watson, although the humorous elements are dialed down after the first twenty minutes.
I hesitate to reveal too much of the plot but it’s a Holmes-worthy mystery one won’t soon forget. Unfortunately, following this excellent debut, Kasdan’s career has been less than stellar with the release of teen comedy Orange County and sporadic work directing television shows.
He tried to resurrect Detective Daryl Zero in a Zero Effect television series starring Alan Cumming but NBC failed to pick up the quirky, intelligent pilot, in just one of many bad choices for a network whose fate is now riding on the success of awful reality shows like Deal or No Deal or The Biggest Loser.