20th Century Sherlock: ZERO EFFECT

We’re wrapping up Sherlock Holmes Month here at the Atomic Junk Shop, and since we started it with the fourth season of Sherlock, I thought it’d be appropriate to finish it with a look at an earlier attempt to create a Sherlock Holmes for the modern day: Zero Effect.

Released 19 years ago on January 30th, 1998, Zero Effect didn’t make much of a splash in theaters, but it developed a cult following on home video. Written and directed by Jake Kasdan, it stars Bill Pullman as quirky private investigator Daryl Zero and Ben Stiller as his beleaguered assistant, lawyer Steve Arlo.

Zero Effect poster
When Bill Pullman could get top billing over Ben Stiller… 1998 was a strange and confusing time.

While it wasn’t promoted as such, Zero Effect is one of the better Holmes pastiches I’ve seen. And much like the BBC Sherlock would do 12 years later, it takes all of Holmes’ trademark quirks and updates them to the present day. Instead of cocaine, Zero takes amphetamines. Instead of playing the violin, Zero writes horrible rock songs on his guitar. Instead of Holmes’ dressing gown, Zero has a tacky bathrobe. And so on.

The movie also nicely solves the Watson Problem by giving Arlo a definite function in Zero’s cases: Since the great detective is too paranoid to meet his clients directly, Arlo acts as a point man and speaks to them on Zero’s behalf. It’s not an easy job, as Zero is an infuriatingly demanding boss. He thinks nothing of making Arlo fly to Portland to have a brief phone conversation and sending him back to Los Angeles on the next flight out.

Zero Effect airport phone call
You can’t be too careful. Two guys in an airport… talking? It’s a little fishy.

Consequently, Arlo is fed up. He wants to quit working for his nutty employer and settle down with his girlfriend Jess. It’s a good part for Stiller, since he plays flustered and frustrated very well.

I’m generally hit and miss on Bill Pullman, but he’s great in this movie. Daryl Zero is quirky enough to be interesting without ever tipping over into annoying. You buy that he’s smart enough to solve the cases brought to him, but maladjusted enough to have never kissed a girl while in his mid-30s. And Jake Kasdan’s script gives him no shortage of cool moments to play.

Kasdan has also learned the value of that great Arthur Conan Doyle trick of giving us tantalizing references to cases we never see. Here’s Arlo selling a new client on Zero’s investigative skills:

Let me tell you about the case of the man with the mismatched shoelaces. This was many years ago, when I first came into his employ. He was contracted to find a man. I’m afraid I can’t give much in the way of detail, but believe me when I say that if this man had not been located, our country’s good diplomacy with a certain economic superpower might have a distinctly different face today. Federal, state, local authorities all over the world were searching around the clock for a face whose significance they couldn’t fathom. He’d vanished without a trace. On the eighth morning of the search, I was contacted by a non-political third party with an unrelated private agenda. Prior to this day, my employer had never heard of this missing man, knew nothing about him. After just one hour of desk work, just an hour after accepting the case, he picked up the telephone and placed a call. Guess who answered the phone. The missing man. The man with the mismatched shoelaces. Without ever leaving the house.

The new client is Gregory Stark, a Portland businessman played by Ryan O’Neal. Stark has lost his keys, and one of them is the key to a safety deposit box. Shortly after losing his keys, Stark began receiving mysterious letters blackmailing him for some long-ago offense. Stark hires Zero to find the keys and the blackmailer. Along the way, he meets a paramedic played by Kim Dickens who also figures into the case.

If you’re a Holmes fan, the broad strokes of this plot may sound familiar. Zero Effect is loosely based on the Doyle story “A Scandal in Bohemia,” and the finished movie has several similarities to that classic. An important man hires a renowned detective to find an incriminating item, but is not entirely forthcoming with the details. The detective investigates in disguise, and meets an intriguing woman who possibly sparks romantic feelings in him. A major breakthrough occurs during a false fire alarm. A criminal is uncovered, hidden truths are revealed, and certain crimes go unpunished. And the disguised detective is called by his real name at a significant point, revealing that he severely underestimated the intelligence of his opponent. If you’re a Sherlock fan, Zero Effect makes for an interesting compare-and-contrast with Sherlock‘s “A Scandal in Belgravia.” They both update “A Scandal in Bohemia” to the present day, but they do it in very different ways. These two could make for a great double feature & discussion with your Holmesian friends.

Sherlock Belgravia Irene Adler
Please be advised that only ONE of the adaptations contains this scene, however.

In 2002, Kasdan tried to resurrect Daryl Zero in a pilot for NBC, with Alan Cumming as Zero and David Julian Hirsh as Arlo replacement Jeff Winslow. Krista Allen, Lizzy Caplan, and Alex DĂ©sert (Swingers, The Flash) also appear. I just watched it for the first time, and I can see why it didn’t sell — It just doesn’t work as well as the movie does. Cumming plays Zero as much more manic than Pullman, and he’s handicapped by not having a romantic subplot to show off Zero’s sympathetic and vulnerable sides. Cumming and Hirsh show no particular chemistry with each other, either.

David Julian Hirsh
Although if you Googled for “Made-For-TV Ben Stiller,” I’m guessing that 90% of the results would be this guy.

The pilot does continue a few of the movie’s themes and trademarks though, such as people’s basic natures leading to their undoing and Daryl Zero’s voiceovers explaining his principles of investigation. Maybe with a little more time, Kasdan and his cowriter Walon Green could have figured things out.

The entire pilot is online, and you can check it out right here:

…So what do you think? Should NBC have ordered a Zero Effect TV show? Does Daryl Zero deserve a larger following, or at least a sequel? Which did a better updating of “A Scandal in Bohemia” for today, Sherlock or Zero Effect? And will John ever NOT post about Sherlock Holmes? (The answer to that last one is “Yes.” At least for a while.)

Back next Monday, where I’ll be talking about comic books again. See you then.


  1. tomfitz1

    I remember watching this movie back when it came out (on dvd or vhs – I forget which) and I loved it.

    It was such an excellent movie, well acted by the main cast, and I had hoped for another movie that touched upon the other cases that the P.I. (Pullman) mentioned, but alas, it never happened.

    It would be cool to see Pullman & Stiller do another ZERO movie (pending on their schedules and the script), but a tv series might not capture the same magic/chemistry as the movie did.

    I would give it a chance and watch it, though.

  2. Greg Burgas

    The last time I was at Vista House (which was a few years ago), which is where Ryan O’Neal gets off the bus (it’s the observatory-looking place in the Columbia Gorge), I actually had to check to see if Tri-Met had a stop there. Alas, they do not go out that far. So sad! But I love movies/shows set in or filmed in Portland, because the wife and I have fun figuring out where everyone is (a lot of Grimm’s bad guys hang out under the St. Johns Bridge for some reason!).

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