Everything old is new again. Zero Effect is a likably smart-arsed exercise in derivative style; more of a `what's-happening?' than a `whodunnit?' Despite writer/director Kasdan's protestations at Cannes, Daryl Zero is clearly a composite of the finest fictional sleuths of the past yanked into the '90s (Columbo, Jake Gittes, Sam Spade, and, particularly, Sherlock Holmes). Holmes caressed his violin, Zero tortures his guitar; Holmes caned opium, Zero prefers whizz. But while Holmes relied on the companionship of fusty blood-hound Dr Watson, Zero employs Steve Arlo (Stiller) as a mere cipher of communication, freeing his focused sensibilities of social clutter.
On Arlo's prompting, Zero crawls out of his fortress and into The Case Of The Lost Keys. Initially, he embarks on a lateral tangent, choosing to ignore the keys' whereabouts in favour of a sniff around Stark himself; an angle which immediately bears surprising - and shocking - fruit. He encounters a spunky paramedic (Dickens) and, despite his drive for emotional detachment, can't help but dazzle her with a spot-on, on-the-spot psychological breakdown, prompted by a brief whiff of formaldehyde.
Meanwhile, Arlo tires of Zero's eccentric methods (like insisting on phone contact only, despite being only three booths apart from each other at the airport) and, under pressure from his girlfriend, begins to slowly break away from his dependent employer. As the murk of the mystery begins to clear, we feel Zero facing more of an emotional, rather than the expected vocational, Waterloo. Those near-shamanic deductive powers don't come cheap, and, for all his fluff about the importance of objectivity and observation ("The two obs..."), the irredeemable gumshoe finally begins to wilt under the strain of the dame...
Pullman refines his serpentine charm, tackling Zero with a volatile sincerity; O'Neal manages a jarring mix of creepy and ineffectual; and Dickens gets by with a reasonably vamp-ish Sadie Frost smoulder. But the real revelation is Kasdan. At the irritatingly unripe age of 22, he's taken his illustrious family credentials (daddy Lawrence co-wrote The Empire Strikes Back and directed Body Heat and The Big Chill) and channelled them into a steady sense of character-driven story with an outstanding ear for quotable, smart-mouth dialogue (""There are no good guys, no innocent guys and no evil guys. There's just a bunch of guys"").
Grumbles? A pesky score, peppered with tiresome Tom Waits-ish baritone folk-funk; a minor slump towards the end of the second act; and a touch of glaze-over at the realisation that maybe the characters would live more comfortably in TV-serial land. You could also do an anti-Coen brothers bore and argue that it's all style over substance, that the characters are little more than convenient caricatures, that there's nothing (or no-one) to really root for in the entire story.
But this is a languid, carefully balanced crime-thriller, flecked with welcome, un-selfconscious comic seasoning and even unafraid to mockingly skip through the rom-com minefield. Like The Big Lebowski, the less you know the better. As Mr Zero himself explains in a pretend letter in the production notes: ""Some questions are for answering, others are better left to be answered in the movie"."