The esteemed Ransom at Chronological Snobbery has asked if I would like to make a contribution to his retrospective on the 10-year anniversary of “The Zero Effect”.
I admit, I procrastinated, I avoided the obligation and said that I, quite honestly, had nothing positive to contribute to the movie. Mr. Ransom agreed that I could take a con position. I took that offer and decided to re-watch the film and see if my perceptions had changed in the 10 years since I saw the movie. I can say they have not and I think that the movie is just as forgettable and insignificant today as I thought it was 10 years ago.
If any of the other contributors induce you to consider seeing this movie qua movie, let me be the first to say that its only merits in my book are to see the two primary protagonists give laudable acting performances of a high quality that will make you blink twice in surprise against your familiarity with the larger scope of their respective oeuvres.
I speak of Bill Pullman and Ben Stiller.
Pullman executed a string of intense studies on men in very non-conventional relationships in this remarkable fecund period in the early 90’s. In fact, against several performances given between 1994 and 1998 Pullman’s role in the Summerstravaganza Crapfest “Independence Day” can be seen as an outlier.
Starting in 1994 he starred against the sexy “Wendy Kroy ( Linda Fiorentino )” in The Last Seduction. Having been manipulated by his scheming wife who sent him for condoms as she skips town with the proceeds of a lucky dope score, Pullman opened up a floodgate to exploring rage, fury, homicide, and seething frustration within the bounds of a relationship that was to pour over his next several films.
Between “The Last Seduction” and “Zero Effect”, Pullman continued his study in relationship-bounded fury in David Lynch’s Mobius murder-mystery “Lost Highway”. “Lost Highway” was the first film that the director himself, at the time, reported as “the perfect David Lynch movie”; the movie he had always wanted to make (for the record, this same theme was explored again, and much more compellingly, I’ll assert, in 2001’s “Mullholland Drive”).
In “Lost Highway”, Pullman does the research and experimentation that makes his portrayal of Zero so effortless. The protagonist believes himself cuckolded, marvels and wonders at his potential capacity as a murderer, and generally exists in a space parallel, but outside of the social mainstream.
In the character Zero, Pullman continues the detailed study of men undergoing psychological fugue between the men they are expected to be, and the men they know they are. It is a superb moment in Pullman’s career. Pullman closes this study in 2002’s Igby Goes Down. Somewhere the raging cuckold has morphed into an alcoholic, suicidal, Zen-like approach to getting a cricket bat to the face courtesy of life.
Pullman’s portrayal of Zero’s meditation on searching for things by not searching for them is reminiscent of the farcical method of flight described by “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” as well as an artful delivery into the mind of the Holmes 2.0, the detective Zero. It’s the only thing that I really remembered as being enjoyable about this movie years on.
Pullman’s not been given the best source material of late, but his performance almost makes “The Zero Effect” worth watching – if only anything else happened in it.
In 1993 there was a channel known as Fox which was favored for showing edgy and daring comedy.
In the 5 or so years previous, this network had launched “Married With Children” and “The Simpsons” and marked a decided turn in the culture wars. America, en masse disagreed with President Bush and said, effectively: “No, we think the American family should be more like The Simpsons and less like that other show you talked about”. To prove their point they elected a president who had played a notoriously difficult-to-tune woodwind on The Arsenio Hall Show.
Fox took another risk by giving Ben Stiller his own show which featured his formidable comedic talents as well as the talents of Bob Odenkirk, and pre-yakuza-arm-sleeve Janeane Garofalo. There was also this un-funny douchebag named Andy Dick on it too.
In this role we saw Ben as an edgy and intense comedic talent. Naturally, the show would be quickly cancelled as reward for such innovation. Yet in the show we saw the talent that’s there in Stiller: a wry eye for satire and a mean streak which could take the absolutely piss out the Fox network with the mockery pilot treatment “Heat Vision and Jack”.
After being kicked to the curb by Fox, Stiller found his way back to mass entertainment and landed in “The Zero Effect”. Taking the Host of the Ben Stiller show and dressing him up in a suit was the perfect chance to show off the best of Ben Stiller, man, not actor. The likable personality behind the “Ben Stiller Show” was given another chance to become familiar to the viewing public.
Yet in “The Zero Effect” we also get a brief peek at the disaster that Stiller was to come to accompany: The narcissistic, whiney, rubber-faced-angry-little-bitch that would come to define his character portfolio up to the present. Like Darwin’s finches, every role of Stiller’s that is beyond a cameo is essentially playing a character slightly more or less little-bitch than Arlo in “Zero Effect”
Consider: Arlo, Stiller’s character, is perpetually complaining about not getting his due, is perpetually obsessing about his relative import ( or lack thereof ), or is being frustrated about his situation using the same 3 stock faces:
*“disaffected/feeling that he’s not being treated like God’s special snowflake”
*“Grr! I’m Angry”
Does this not sound like pretty much every role Stiller has played since 1998?
A few traces should suffice to prove the downward trajectory.
The Arlo persona had its whiny-bitch-o-meter revved up in “Flirting with Disaster”: over-neurotic to the point of absurdity, narcissistic to the extreme, obsessed with external validation to a fault, etc. Stiller’s character’s single nuance of “unbelievable outright neediness” threatened to tank that film, were it not for Tea Leoni’s and Patricia Arquette’s balancing desperations ( Ms. Leoni’s ticking clock and Arquette’s armpit licking made Stiller’s neurotic individual stick out less ).
Stiller took the same identikit mix for the Neil LaBute squirm-fest “Your Friends and Neighbors”. Never have I enjoyed watching a character get humiliated quite like Catherine Keener’s ego-destroying “Buh” or “Should I write hold me?” to Arlo, er, Jerry in the third act.
The only addition that has come to modify the Arlo archetype is the “Stiller Rage Face” that calls to mind G.E. Smith’s What’s-that-smell? guitar style from 90’s era Saturday Night Live ( ironically a main character feature of his Mr. Furious in the utterly forgettable “Mystery Men”).
Since that time Stiller has basically played the same role with only minor deviations.
- Sardonic cop with Gen-X cynical chic ( surely some grass-chewer in Hollywood scribbed that on the back of the head-shot ) = “Starsky and Hutch”.
- Skew it yuppie: “Reality Bites”.
- Skew it yuppie and neurotic and oh-so-adorably-quirky (I’m lookin' atchu Wes)? Royal Tenenbaums.
*Skew it to middle-class post-Thanksgiving tyryptophan high pablum? You get “Meet the Parents”.
- Skew it for people lacking a cerebral cortex? “Meet The Fockers”.
- Dredge up the same role from “Meet the Parents”, and “Something About Mary”, but make it ten-times less funny? “Along Came Polly”.
- Add a tenancy in common to Polly, you get “Duplex”.
- Too lazy to show up to play your central casting character? Madagascar.
- Even lazier? Madagascar II: Electric pile-of-poo.
- That one where he’s in Mexico with the girl or something and he’s angry at the mariachis
These indictments should be sufficient to show that Zero effect marked the death of Ben Stiller auteur, thinker, and risk-taker to Ben Stiller, a guy in movies. It hurts, because goddammit Ben, you have the skills, we saw them accidentally escape in your cameo in “Anchorman”, but dammit man, the penis-inflation sight-gag from Dodgeball? What the hell is that? I thought Ben was going to fight the machine and do great things. With his connections into the Apatow mafia he still could. C'mon Ben, you’ve got the cash now, make those great things you dreamt about ( although leaving Andy Dick behind is entirely acceptable).
In conclusion, if you’re looking for the genetic ancestor of all Ben Stiller roles since 1992, you can look to “Zero Effect”. If you’re writing your master’s drama thesis on the fecund period of Pullman, look to “Zero Effect”. Otherwise pick up 7% Solution, by Doyle, its conceit is much more compelling – and there’s no open-mouthed gaping Stiller freeze frame that you will need to endure.