Wednesday, February 5, 2014

In-Class Movie: "Zero Effect" (Pullman, 1998)

“Is Mr. Sherlock Holmes here?”
My friend bowed and smiled. “Mr. Sandeford, of Reading, I suppose?” said he.
“Yes, sir, I fear that I am a little late, but the trains were awkward.”

--Arthur Conan Doyle, “The Adventure of the Six Napeleons”

Austin: We’re finally back! Many apologies for our hiatus. It’s entirely my fault. I was distracted with a number of things and now I’m able to be back on a proper schedule.

After many rescheduling, we’re finally ready to talk about the underappreciated Zero Effect, the first film by Jake Kasdan (The TV Set, Walk Hard, TV’s New Girl). It’s a little bit Nero Wolfe and a lotta bit of Arthur Conan Doyle. Bill Pullman plays the brilliant but difficult Daryl Zero. Ben Stiller is his often annoyed partner, Steve Arlo. Ryan O’Neal is the client and the always wonderful Kim Dickens is the woman.

Backwards cap > deerstalker?

What struck me this time watching it was just how damn American this is. Obviously we have many thoughts on Elementary, but that is a Sherlock that is literally imported from England to live in New York. Zero is American through and through. Americans seems more obnoxious in how they break their taboos so Zero’s rudeness is often seen as exhausting instead of quirky. The whole mystery plot is definitely influenced by Doyle, but it also reminds me of American neo-noirs. This isn’t as cynical as something like Chinatown, but the blackmailers do feel dirtier and more personal than we read about in Victorian times. There’s more of a willingness to delve into the emotions of our characters than sticking with the seemingly calm, collected Brits.

Most importantly, this all worked in the movie for me. I still get lost in the connecting the dots element of the mystery, but I really liked watching all of these characters interact especially Stiller’s Arlo. It’s a nice subdued film that is able to accomplish some impressive things without being tied down by canon.

Did you like it? Or was this long wait ruined by a lackluster movie? 

Leigh: Yay! We're back!

Holy crap, this is so American. When it comes to quirky/odd/awkward characters, the British do it so well that in the end you don't find that character awkward but more charming (see: Every Hugh Grant movie ever). But when Americans do it, it often ends disastrously (see: The Big Bang Theory). This is one of those times that I think the character can't decide what he is doing. Yes, he was introduced as socially inept in a fantastic introduction that I would have loved to carry throughout the entire movie instead of being a storytelling device that was quickly abandoned. But once we meet this character that supposedly can't function outside of a case, he doesn't seem awkward but just a jerk. The one time the audience should really see him be "awkward" he actually does what any leading man in any movie would do and have sex with the sexy lady. I vote that from this point forward, Americans stop writing awkward characters for at least 10 years. Lets revisit this when we're a bit more mature as a society.

No one can be that awkward if they work that much on their hair.

As for the rest of the movie, it was VERY 90s. So 90s sometimes it hurts. The movie did not age well. This was my first viewing of it but I might've enjoyed it a lot more when I was younger. But now? This movie felt jumbled and like it couldn't decide what it wanted to do. The narrator changes, the mystery changes (I think?). And as for the Great Detective Role, I was largely unimpressed. His connections seemed to come out of nowhere except the few times where the director made it blindingly obvious that THE LADY WITH THE BIG ORANGE CASE OBVIOUSLY TOOK THE MONEY. And he was sloppy. He's writing advice to solve crimes and mysteries in the weird voice over but he isn't smart enough to keep the same profession when talking to people in the same gym who probably talk to one another. That seemed sloppy, really sloppy. I probably wouldn't take his advice, that's for sure. 

And then the end? I just. I don't think the bad guy was really that motivated to hunt down the leading lady and have her killed. At least not so motivated to constantly track her around the world and eventually have her killed. 

I guess I am disappointed in it. Even if you do get lost with the mystery and some of the dots don't seem to connect, is it still a worthy mystery to take a look at?

Austin: Hmmmm. So you say the character doesn’t know what he’s doing, not exactly the movie? For I think the filmmaker isn’t romanticizing Zero because they make Arlo character very reasonable in why he’s frustrated all the time. I love the opening where he’s building the legend of Zero and intercutting that with the reality about how freakin’ annoying that would be.

I say that American can keep writing awkward characters. Christopher Guest is the genius at it. 


But is this a valid mystery? No because both times I watched it, my mind zoned out for the plotting but really started to get into the Zero/Gloria relationship. I found them very interesting and this can lead into our character breakdown. I adore Kim Dickens as an actress. She’s the good luck charm for some of the best TV shows (Deadwood, LOST, Treme, Friday Night Lights) and she is essentially playing the Irene Adler role. Every other Adler we’ve seen on this blog is very theatrical with every scene, while Dickens is playing the harder game. She’s quietly seducing him. Mystery stories have ingrained in our heads not to trust the woman, but she seems so sincere with every scene. Yet ultimately she’s still the criminal and he’s still the detective. 

How obscure is this week's movie? More people have seen Kim Dickens in this!

I’m still very weary on Pullman’s performance but he gets certain scenes really right. I like his ending when he gives his nod to Doyle, “Perhaps the most able blackmailer of her time, she was at once the worthiest opponent and the greatest ally, and the only woman I have ever…the only woman, period.” You make a great point about how easily he was able to have sex with her but was that her plan or was Zero just playing the part of the romantic lead (much like how I think he plays the part of the eccentric.)

Also what did you think of this trio as they played the American counterpoints to Sherlock/Watson/Irene Adler?

Leigh: Bill Pullman has a problem that a few actors can relate to. He's stuck in a time period and will never break out of it. To me, he will always be a definitive actor of the 1990s. He just screams mid 90s movies to me. Unlike most roles though where, if an actor is typecast and he wants to break out of it, he can, Bill Pullman can't. No matter what he is in, I instantly think, Casper or Independence Day. Steve Guttenberg has the same problem but with the 1980s. That being said, I think he did a pretty good job as a very 1990s, American Sherlock Holmes. 

"It's never going to get better than this!"

I think that Ben Stiller is a very underappreciated actor. He does such a great job in The Royal Tenenbaums that after seeing it, it completely changed my opinion of him as an actor. I think he does a good job as an American Watson. I wish there was more interaction between Zero and Arlo. It felt like the majority of the movie it was them talking on the phone and there wasn't enough face to face confrontation. Ben Stiller does a great job playing off of other actors and you just don't get that as much when the other actor isn't there.

As for Irene Adler, I was largely unimpressed with her. She does the quiet thing well but if the script hadn't made it obvious that she was going to be an important character when her and Zero first met, then I would've ignored her. She needed just a tiny bit more personality for my liking. I enjoy that she was the blackmailer but I don't really like how it seemed like she was doing it just because of reasons. Reasons that might have been explained but if so I don't remember or it was too convoluted for me to get. 

And that's how I generally feel about the movie as a whole. It was too convoluted and too 1990s. All it needed was some Jamiroquai on the soundtrack. Oh wait, there was.  

Next time, we go back to school and see how Victorians cheated on exams! 

Austin: I also concur that Ben Stiller is an underappreciated dramatic actor. I also liked him in Greenberg, Keeping the Faith and Flirting with Disaster.

"I'm more than being really, really ridiculously good-looking."

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