Sunday, August 12, 2012

Zero Effect

Wikipedia claims that this movie is based on Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe mysteries, but any doubt that it's based on Sherlock Holmes is erased with one of Ben Stiller's first lines, when he paraphrases Holmes's statement that his fees are on a fixed scale, save when he remits them all together. Stiller also later paraphrases the line about how the stage lost a great actor when Holmes became a detective. Ben Stiller plays Steve Arlo, the lawyer and go-between for reclusive private detective Daryl Zero, played by Bill Pullman.

It occurs to me that this 1998 film was the first film to show a Sherlock Holmes character who was a scruffy mess, years before Robert Downey, Jr. did it in Guy Ritchie's movies. Not only is Zero's apartment a hoarder's dream, but he has questionable personal hygiene and barely functions when he's not working. He writes pathetic love songs on his guitar and wears cowboy boots in bed. He drinks Tab soda and eats tuna fish straight from the can. He also swears liberally and loves methamphetamines. He makes ridiculous demands on Arlo, having him fly back and forth from L.A. to Portland, Oregon, (where the case is set) because he doesn't trust using long-distance phone lines to communicate his instructions to Arlo.

This is especially annoying because Arlo has a girlfriend named Jess that he has to neglect in order to obey Zero's orders. When Zero says that Arlo moved in with her too soon, and later asks "haven't I been good to you?" it sounds very much like the pleading and wheedling Holmes did in Guy Ritchie's movies when Watson got engaged and then married to Mary Morstan. Unfortunately the bromance is cut short by the romance with their Irene Adler character, Gloria Sullivan.

Though Gloria is a paramedic instead of an opera singer, and she is not the lover of the man being blackmailed, she is a very good modern rendering of Irene Adler. She's very smart, she likes danger, and she blackmails for a personal reason, revenge against an arrogant villain. She's not a Milverton, blackmailing everyone for a living and destroying lives indiscriminately. This is an honorable woman, even if she makes questionably moral choices and drains money from the rich man Stark. You get the feeling that she's doing it not just to care for her disabled friend in a nursing home, but also to emotionally wreck and punish Stark for a past rape and murder which he got away with. When Steve Arlo learns the truth, he wants to quit because he's disgusted by working for men like Stark, "the lowest scum of the earth." Stark will likely kill Gloria Sullivan as soon as he learns her identity. This is how a modern Irene (and modern King) should be portrayed. She's not a fucking dominatrix selfishly screwing over countries for profit, and repeatedly killing innocent people to fake her death. Fuck you, Moffat. Writer/director Jake Kasdan clearly understood the morals of "Scandal in Bohemia" better than you ever will.

The only thing I was unhappy about regarding Gloria Sulllivan is that she and Daryl Zero have a romance that even includes a sex scene. I prefer Irene Adler and Holmes to be respectful rivals instead. But they eliminated any Godfrey Norton character for her affections, and the romance is used to heal Zero's various psychological problems. In the director's commentary, Jake Kasdan says he wanted to focus as much on the relationship as on the mystery. I get why he did it, and the Guy Ritchie movies also had Irene Adler in love with Holmes, but I think the movies would have been stronger by following Conan Doyle's story better. There has never been a perfect adaptation that didn't imply romantic feelings.

I like the movie mostly, but disliked Zero trying to justify Stark as a victim, when he could have said instead that they needed to continue the case to protect Gloria and talk her out of her blackmail scheme. I also didn't like Zero returning the blackmail material to Stark, when in SCAN, Holmes never retrieved the photo. But I suppose Stark would never have abandoned the search for his blackmailer if he wasn't assured that he was free. In the original story, the King's willingness to take Irene's word for it that she wouldn't use the photo is somewhat of a loose end. (That's why in my novel DIM, I have Irene and Godfrey fake their deaths just to make sure that they'll be safe.) Still, Gloria wins morally in the end and changes her mind; nothing Zero did foiled her plan or Stark's. She even gets Zero to tell her the disturbing truth about his childhood. (In the commentary, Kasdan says that the story might not be literally true, but is emotionally true.) Gloria's discussions with Daryl are meant to heal his problems and "solve him" like he usually solves his cases, so she is made the equal of him. Here you gladly root for Gloria/Irene to win and to escape alive, with no bad taste in your mouth about how she's a psychopath hurting innocent people. Fuck you, Moffat.

I also enjoy the many Sherlockian references in the film, like allusions to past cases by ridiculous titles like "The man with the mismatched shoelaces," and something illegible on the wall that was meant to be the V.R. bulletholes. It's interesting that Arlo, the Watson character, was made into a lawyer and employee of the detective, yet there was no protest back then about how this cheapened their working partnership and friendship. (Watson's job and voluntary roommate status has never been sacred before, no matter what the anti-Elementary people say.) Though Arlo proposes to his girlfriend, he also knows that Zero needs him, even though he's an annoying bastard. He's very concerned for his emotional and mental health, and he's loyal to the point of threatening to kill Stark to protect Zero. In the end Zero states that Arlo can come back to his job at any time, and I sort of hope that he does, as long as Zero treats him better.

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