Everyone goes through life dropping crumbs. If you can recognize the crumbs, you can trace a path all the way back from your death certificate to the dinner and a movie that resulted in you in the first place. But research is an art, not a science, because anyone who knows what they’re doing can find the crumbs: the wheres, whats, and whos. The art is in the whys: the ability to read between the crumbs, not to mix metaphors. For every event, there is a cause and effect. For every crime, a motive. And for every motive, a passion. The art of research is the ability to look at the details and see the passion. — Daryl Zero
Zero Effect might be the only movie to ever understand Bill Pullman. The actor has been working steadily since his debut in 1986’s Ruthless People, and he’s been in his share of hits, odd wonders, and pop culture touchstones. Yet Pullman is almost never the star: he’s either part of an ensemble or playing a supporting role, in parts that leverage his generic all-American affability and often have him playing the patsy, the cuckold, or the nice guy next door. This makes sense on one level, since his persona doesn’t exactly square with the traditional hero or romantic lead (attempts to turn him into both did not pan out). But it’s also a wild misuse of his unique talent. Pullman’s got a wonderful energy, a kind of crackling darkness underneath an easygoing grin, that lets him seem slippery and aloof while everyone around him plays pretend. He’s soft-spoken, but not weak; in motion, but not manic. He’s naturally complicated. And in Zero Effect, he finally gets to be everything, all at once.
Not that most people knew it at the time. Zero Effect came and went in a month in early 1998, grossing a skimpy $2 million and playing only a smattering of theaters before closing. It had, to say the least, a lower profile than the other movies Pullman had appeared in up to that point in the 1990s. This was, after all, only two years after Independence Day and three years after While You Were Sleeping, and before that there had been noticeable parts in Sleepless in Seattle, A League of Their Own, and the admirably insane Malice. Zero Effect was also Pullman’s only film to be released in 1998, following a run where he’d appeared in several movies per year. It skipped across the surface without making any ripples before disappearing into deep water. This is understandable — the film is a mix of genres and tones, and was probably a tough sell to audiences who were only a couple weeks away from seeing The Wedding Singer — but also lamentable. Zero Effect is a rich, bittersweet brew. It’s in the general neighborhood of dark comedy, but not in the traditional sense of the genre that finds humor in the awful or the profane. Rather, it’s a film whose darkness is sadness, and whose comedy is pathos. It’s a mystery that builds initial energy with several nice twists, but then it lets that energy go so it can change direction, evolving into a character study before pivoting into a coming-of-middle-age and, finally, doomed romance. Pullman’s character starts out wild and erratic before softening around the edges and learning the value of connection, and the film mirrors that emotional change, slowing and deepening as it unfolds. Pullman’s performance is the key to all of it, and it’s a standout in his career. He hasn’t done anything like it since.
The character is key to understanding the movie, and Pullman’s brilliance in it. Pullman plays Daryl Zero, the self-proclaimed greatest private investigator in the world and an abrasive and crass egotist who shuns human interaction. He’s neurotically ensconced in a codependent working relationship with Steve Arlo (Ben Stiller), his lawyer and assistant, whom Daryl sends into the field to meet with clients and collect the checks. The main plot is set in action when Daryl is hired to find out who’s been blackmailing a wealthy businessman, Gregory Stark (Ryan O’Neal). The film has plenty of comedy, which is to say that Pullman does and says funny things, but the humor is usually muted and subtle. One imagines director Jake Kasdan’s thought process was to make a movie about a weird depressive with a gift for deduction, then take things up half a level to make them just a touch more amusing. Daryl Zero is a skittish, odd bird of a man, and Pullman is untouchably perfect in the role, from the way his grin appears and fades without warning, to the way he can look someone in the eye only to hang his head a minute later, to the way his gravelly voice can be played for strength or awkwardness. Daryl is accomplished and brilliant, but also lacking in fundamental self-awareness, and Pullman expertly brings life to the character by living on both sides of that divide at once.
For example: Daryl Zero is a big believer in disguises and cover identities, and throughout the film he trots out several variations of hairpieces, fake mustaches, and doctored passports. Yet he doesn’t really act differently when he changes his look. He’s a little more outgoing when he has to be “on” — shaking hands, capable of doing the hail-fellow-well-met thing — but that’s about all. His voice, mannerisms, gait, etc., are all pretty much locked in. There’s some very subtle humor in this, since it’s always a bit of a gag for the star to show up in a bad disguise that somehow fools everyone but the viewer. But the deeper emotional point is that Daryl doesn’t really need them. He’s wearing masks for their comfort, not their utility. He is still unavoidably himself, just trying to hide from the world.
Daryl’s journal entries about how to be a detective serve as narration, and he spends time up front talking about objectivity and observation, or “the two Obs.” These are the keys to his ability to remain unnoticed and unattached as he works through each case. As it must, though, his defense mechanism comes crashing down when he discovers the blackmailer, Gloria Sullivan (Kim Dickens), and finds himself inexorably drawn to her. Stark wants to know who’s blackmailing him, but Daryl wants to know why the blackmailing is happening in the first place — and it’s the work to discovering that secret, and the truth of Gloria’s relationship to Stark, that sets Daryl on a path of change. That change might look minor to a viewer, but for Daryl it’s everything: the evolution into someone who values human relationships. And it’s in this arc that the character really comes into his own, thanks to Pullman. It’s not just that he has to soften up. It’s that he has to start out as such a damaged mess and maintain that sense of personality while incorporating new changes. Daryl’s not suddenly a new man when he gets closer to Gloria, but a fuller version of his old self.
This is the first time we meet Daryl:
He’s living in filth, prone to anger, and probably a little nuts. Then we start to see him in the field:
He’s on his game, tightening up. Eventually, he starts to open up:
There’s an ache to his performance that’s slowly revealed over time, and in moments like his diner confession, Kasdan keeps the cuts to a minimum and lets Pullman’s face and voice do all the work. Pullman moves gracefully through each step, while also holding tight to the core of the character as someone passionately devoted to the pursuit of truth, even when the discovery of that truth has personally devastating consequences. Daryl’s journey isn’t just into human connection, but deeper into moral certitude. At one point, a frustrated Arlo says to him: “There aren’t any good guys. You realize that, don’t you? I mean: there aren’t evil guys and innocent guys. It’s just — it’s just — it’s just a bunch of guys.” And you can tell there’s a time Daryl would’ve believed it, or maybe just wanted to believe it. But you can see in Pullman’s eyes it’s not enough. By the end of the film, Daryl Zero’s become a better man, and Pullman’s done his job so deftly you’re almost not aware he’s doing it. You’d need something to measure it against to get a real sense of the achievement. Curiously, Hollywood obliged.
A few years after the film, Kasdan and Walon Green collaborated on a network TV version of Zero Effect for NBC, with Alan Cumming as Daryl Zero. The pilot was produced, but the series wasn’t picked up, and it exists today as a Youtube orphan. What’s fascinating about the TV version is how broad and cartoonish Daryl Zero became in Cumming’s hands, enamored of thick accents and outlandish costumes. This is the character by way of Saved by the Bell, a gold lamé mockery of what had been a complex and rewarding individual. It’s tonally all wrong, and it feels like a betrayal by Kasdan of his own character and of the work that Pullman did to inhabit it. Cumming worked it from the outside in, but Pullman went from the inside out, starting at the core with a broken man, afraid of abandonment, and expanding until he’d created a jagged-edged but believable, almost tangible person.
Zero Effect is prickly and imperfect, but it finds a true home with its lead actor. Its case study in the rigor of loneliness and the effort to eradicate it gives the film its true emotional weight, and that turns it from a trifling comic mystery into something that takes more risks and offers many more rewards. It shows you all the details, then lets you see the passion.