Meet Daryl Zero, a sort of Holmes in extremis. The last name suggests a lot about his character. He’s uncompromising in his methods, to the point where he refuses to meet or speak to his clients, for fear of clouding his judgment. Instead, he sends his Watson, Steve Arlo (Ben Stiller), who serves as a trusty liaison and pitchman who’s skilled at explaining why clients need Zero’s services (“he can tell you where you were born, how old your mother was at the time, and what you had for breakfast, all within 30 seconds of meeting you”) while demanding an extravagant, non-negotiable fee. While Arlo, the audience’s surrogate, is suitably awed by his boss’ insights into the human mind, his exasperation gets a good venting, too. Zero’s list of quirks is never-ending, from the harmless (a fridge packed with cans of Tab) to the paranoid (an apartment protected by a bank vault, six heavy deadbolts, and a 10-digit security code) to the embarrassingly naïve (he’s never kissed a girl). He’s mastered the art of detachment, but as Arlo notes, the self-proclaimed “greatest observer the world has ever known” is too afraid to go the dry cleaners.
As played by Bill Pullman, Zero is both a cool, serenely confident logician and a certified nutcase—contradictions well-suited to an actor square-jawed enough to be the president in Independence Day, yet right at home in David Lynch’s Lost Highway. His one tic has always been a tendency to squint through performances, not as if he doesn’t understand things, or he’s dubious about what someone else is saying, but more as if he’s lost in some bizarre train of thought. In one of my favorite moments in Zero Effect, Zero drags Arlo away from his girlfriend in Los Angeles, puts him on a flight to Portland, and winds up communicating with him via two payphones about 10 feet apart from each other. When Arlo asks him why they’re on payphones, the mysteriously bearded Zero replies, with that trademark Pullman squint, “We can’t be too careful. Two guys in an airport… talking… It’s a little fishy.”
At a mere 23 years old, Kasdan not only knows his Holmes, he crafts a seemingly simple yet maddeningly dense plot that’s in line with Raymond Chandler detective fiction.
If you were dissapointed with the latest incarnation of Sherlock Holmes (my brother in law smells a franchise brewing). This might cleanse your palette.