Bill Pullman apparently feels he has to do several years of penance for his role in the fantastically successful, fabulously shallow Independence Day. He showed up first in David Lynch’s wacked-out Lost Highway and then in The End of Violence, Wim Wenders’ arty update of Grand Canyon, Lawrence Kasdan’s meditation on arid, fragmented L.A. Now he’s in Zero Effect, a moderately quirky detective flick written and directed by Kasdan’s 22-year-old son, Jake.
Perhaps it was deemed too obscure, but it seems that the phrase Kasdan really wanted was “zero affect.” As the film’s press kit puts it, protagonist Daryl Zero (Pullman) “has taken the 20th century artform of complete detachment to its zenith.” An eccentric, reclusive private detective, Zero never officially meets his clients. Indeed, when he’s not working, Zero encounters no one except his invaluable assistant Steve Arlo (Ben Stiller), the one person who knows where Zero livesand how to get in. Zero can handle human interaction only when he’s undercover, posing as someone else to gather information. In other words, he’s the ultimate American workaholic, capable of being human solely in his professional role.
This is a reasonably clever pop-psychology premise, but one that cues a near-inevitable payoff: In the process of solving a complicated case, Zero must let down his psychic guard and yield to human emotions. That’s the Hollywood formula, and here Kasdan proves himself a child of Hollywood.
The transformative assignment involves an arrogant, uptight Oregon timber baron, Gregory Stark (Ryan O’Neal), who hires Zero to discover who’s blackmailing him. Zero arrives in Portland, goes on a few surveillance treks that show off the local cityscape, and identifies a suspect: attractive, independent-minded paramedic Gloria Sullivan (Kim Dickens, also opening this week in Great Expectations). The real mystery, however, is not who but why: With what information is Stark being blackmailed (he won’t say), and what’s the blackmailer’s motivation?
That’s the conventional part of the mystery-flick recipe, which the movie takes a little more seriously than the plot justifies. It joins the equally predictable romantic subplot: Zero finds that love humanizes him, making it possible for him to exist outside his customary cocoon even when he’s not focused on a case. Although Zero is a petulant, amphetamine-abusing, Tab-drinking, country-blues-yodeling nutball when he’s in his sanctum sanctorum, all it takes is the love of a good, down-to-earth woman to set him straight.
This moral is unworthy of Zero Effect’s fresher moments, and it’s one the movie furthers with its sketchy depiction of Arlo’s relationship with fiancée Jess (Angela Featherstone). She insists that Arlo quit working for Zero and settle down with her. Jess is a young beauty who’s introduced in her bathing suit in the fabulous pool of her upscale L.A. home, but she’s nonetheless a drag. In her glamorous way, she’s the embodiment of Hollywood family values, and she wins.
The trite narrative and the musty message aside, Zero Effect is actually fun in places. Kasdan attempts to prove his youth with some flashy camera work (sometimes distracting), neo-noir lighting (sometimes murky), and a hip score (sometimes intrusive) featuring Elvis Costello, Nick Cave, Mary Lou Lord, Brendan Benson, and, er, Jamiroquai. What distinguishes the film, however, is its deadpan humor and exuberant absurdism. Zero’s manic, asocial personality breaks through often enough to keep things interesting. It’s not giving away too much about the film or its maker, however, to reveal that the final scene is Arlo and Jess’ wedding.
Who’s the title character in Josh and Jonas Pate’s Deceiver? Is it murder suspect Wayland (Tim Roth)? Is it uptight cop Kennesaw (Michael Rooker)? Is it Kennesaw’s more amiable but still antsy partner Braxton (Chris Penn)? Or is it the film itself?
I guess I’m not supposed to tell, but it soon becomes clear that it’s the movie that has the biggest stake in keeping you guessing. All the central characters have something to hide, but it’s doubtful that their deceptions would be so baroque if not for the writer-directors’ desire to pull off a Usual Suspects-style coup.
Though complicated by flashbacks, fantasy sequences, and lies, Deceiver’s scenario is not all that elaborate. Wayland is an arrogant, alcoholic Charleston, S.C., aristocrat who’s being questioned about the murder of a local prostitute (Renée Zellweger, seen only in flashback). Wayland seemingly has no motivation for the murder, but his trickery makes the cops increasingly suspicious. Yet Kennesaw and Braxton themselves have some potent secrets, including the former’s brutal relationship with his wife (Rosanna Arquette) and the latter’s serious debt to a local bookie (Ellen Burstyn). Hidden truth is the movie’s theme, and lie-detector sessions are its dramatic motif.
The Pates seem to take lie detectors and IQ tests very seriously, even though it’s unclear what either actually measure. But then these twin brothers, here making their first major-studio feature, take a lot for granted, from the psychosis-causing powers of absinthe to the trance-inducing properties of frontal-lobe epilepsy. They also apparently believe that any act can be made a little more mysterious by placing it in a darkened room illuminated by shards of light through an almost-closed Venetian blind.
In other words, this is a noir-buff movie, best suited to viewers who enjoy naked contrivance. For those interested in character and plausibility, the uninterrupted flow of plot twists will probably seem mechanical; the script’s insistence on regular surprises ultimately drains those surprises of their effectiveness. Still, as a genre exercise Deceiver is reasonably clever, and it does feature Roth’s least self-parodic turn in several years.CP