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A wonderfully original movie born of a hackneyed genre
on February 21, 2003
Jake Kasdan himself, the director of "Zero Effect," admitted that the Detective-Story plot is a Hollywood favorite. Having admitted that, he went on to create one of the best movies I've seen, and certainly the best I've seen in this genre, while at once adhering to the rules of the detective story and creating such a sharp, intelligently written story that it makes you shake your head.
There is so much to love about this movie I hesitate to begin. How about with the dialogue? From the first line, the dialogue is precise, subtle and funny. Someone famous once stressed that subtlety is key to lasting humor, and this script is exemplary; it's as funny the tenth time I watch it as it was the first. For once, we get to laugh at the detective hero, to laugh at his human flaws, as well as marvel at his methods.
Ben Stiller is a master of the human kettle of frustration, and is a great counterpoint to Pullman's various quirks. I didn't like Stiller much before this film, but have since become a staunch fan thanks to his performance here. Kim Dickens was fantastic, as was the role created for her. Detective movies usually feature a femme fatale with much more to her than meets the eye, but Clarissa is one to beat them all. I'll let it stand at that so as not to ruin any of the plot. And Ryan O'Neal rounds out the main cast with a wonderful portrayal of a white-collar criminal.
People accuse me sometimes of taking movies too seriously, but I argue back that my favorites are ones that actually teach me something lasting. As we watch, we solve the mystery along with Daryl Zero, and we learn his methods, similar to reading along to a Sherlock Holmes story (in this case, see "A Scandal in Bohemia"). While the real world of PI's almost always involves following a spouse around to see if they're cheating, one can still learn from this artificial world of blackmail, murder and reprisal. It is true that 'watching someone in their natural habitat can be very telling,' and learning how to be an objective observer ('the 2 obs') is rewarding. There is one scene where Zero makes his assessment of his client after watching him for a day at the gym, and it is absolutely fantastic.
I read a review of this film that complained about a thin soundtrack. Kasdan himself addressed the question: he hates, as do I, when a soundtrack tells you how to feel. If there's a love scene, play pretty piano music in the background. If someone's being followed, play music in a sinister minor chord. You get the idea. Can't you make a love scene realer, and more poignant, by playing nothing at all, by letting the rustle of a dress as it falls to the floor stand alone as a supremely erotic noise? Kasdan used music minimally, to accentuate a scene rather than make up for it.
Jake Kasdan, in his first solo effort as director, made a film as masterful and quirky as its main character, and at the same time made me hang on to every word while I was stunned time and again at the remarkable plot twists. For that he is to be commended.