Well-written plots highlight recent lesser-known videos
Jesse Richards - September 30, 1998

out of four acorns:
Zero Effect - four acorns
Bound - three acorns
The Game - three and a half acorns
A Perfect Murder - three acorns

So you're watching a movie with some friends, and it's going great. The movie's pretty good, interesting, acting's not bad, funny dialogue. And then Wham! Out of nowhere, you're hit with a plot hole big enough to drive a truck through. How did they know the aliens would have Macintoshes? Why did Batman have bat-ice-skates? Suddenly, the movie is ruined, you can't pay attention, and you spend the rest of the time wondering how the director can live with himself. Bill Pullman

Sure, these poorly-written movies seem to be in abundance nowadays, and get a lot of publicity. But there are other movies as well, well-written ones, which seamlessly blend good acting and thoughtful, intricate plots into intelligent, exciting movies. Many of these often overlooked movies are now conveniently on video.

One seriously underrated recent movie is Zero Effect, starring Bill Pullman and Ben Stiller. This quirky thriller involves the world's best private investigator, Daryl Zero (Pullman), trying to unravel a blackmail scheme. What makes this movie stand out from other mysteries is the tongue-in-cheek humor. Zero is a genius, but becomes a socially inept maniac when not working. He requires help from his sardonic partner Steve Arlo (Stiller) to contact his clients. The humorous rapport between the two is a highlight of the film.

The plot is very complex, but each step is explained well, and it works. Pullman presents himself in first-person to the audience, through the clever device of writing an explanation of his theories and techniques. This lets the viewer better follow what is going on inside the head of this ‘genius'. The Zero Effect

The movie is exceptional in that it is in that rare group of movies that create their own genres - in this case ‘comedic thriller'. That is, the plot is intriguing enough that it would work simply as a thriller, without any humor. The humor is also strong enough by itself to carry the movie. This genre-hopping effect is a delicate balance, and difficult to maintain, but writer/director Jack Kasdan manages to carry the same light-but-serious tone throughout the movie. This subtle humor can be seen in everything the offbeat Daryl Zero says or does throughout the movie, and how the other characters play the straight men to his off-the-wall, meandering mad scientist-type detective. Pullman carries his role expertly, playing Zero's ridiculous nuances to an extreme, and always with underplayed humor. For example, Zero explains: "I always say the essence of my work relies fundamentally on two basic principles: Objectivity and Observation, or ‘The Two Obs' as I call them." Zero speaks with an Adam West-ish tongue-in-cheek seriousness that only makes his antics more campy, and creates more laughs.

As in any well-written movie, the real wonders are in the details. As Ben Stiller says, on the Zero Effect web site ( http://castle-rock.com/zeroeffect/cmp/index.html ): "When I read the script I was very impressed with the intricacy of the plot and the layers of character and humor. There's a lot going on." And there is - whether it's Pullman's intricate secret identities (According to Zero: "Never give out real information. Ever."), Stiller's attempts to sidestep his boss and spend time with his girlfriend, or their client's insistence on not revealing why he's hired the investigators (all that Zero starts with is that the client has lost his keys.) Fortunately, one reason the movie works well on video is because it lends itself to multiple watchings - one way to find details and jokes that might have been missed.

There are several thrillers that bring to mind a similar attention to detail and intricacy of plot, although none have the element of humor that works so well in Zero Effect. One of these is Bound, starring Gina Gershon, Jennifer Tilly, and Joe Pantoliano. Contrary to popular opinion, the main theme of the movie is not lesbianism, although it is featured and the movie does deal well with sexual dynamics and gender roles. What the movie also does, however, is combine action, suspense, dynamic characterization, and an intricate who-is-playing-whom mystery that holds the viewer captivated.

The movie focuses on Caesar, a money launderer for the mob, and his girlfriend, Violet (Tilly). When Corky (Gershon) moves next door, she starts a relationship with Violet that eventually leads to a complicated attempt to steal the millions of dollars that Caesar is holding for his bosses. What follows is an intricate dance of deception and a surprising intricacy of plot. The movie has an amazing way of introducing details (such as a pair of pruners) that are used once, tossed aside so as to make the viewer forget them, and then pop back again at the perfect moment. Bound also benefits from dynamic camera angles and intriguing sets, such as a room filled with hanging money and a massive explosion of house paint. Each of these details combines with the tight plot and superb interplay between the three main characters to create an intriguing, thought-provoking dramatic thriller and character study.

Two recent, more well-known, Michael Douglas thrillers also have well-constructed storylines. Interestingly, both feature Douglas in very similar roles. The Game stars Douglas as a high-powered businessman who receives a striking birthday present from his brother (Sean Penn): a chance to try a complex, individually-tailored dramatic game, staged by a mysterious company. The movie deals with Douglas's attempts to straighten out his life after the game shakes it up. The highlight of the movie is the way the viewer is kept in suspense as to which events are real and which are an aspect of the game, up until the final scene. It's fun trying to figure out which characters are really actors hired by the company to confuse Douglas, and to see the elaborate lengths that the company goes to to stage seemingly normal events. All the while, there is a subtext of a kind of Shakespearian game-within-a-game, since the actors for the company are actors in the movie as well. This is one of those movies where it seems like it could end in several places, but then something surprising happens, and the movie takes a whole new turn. The ending alone is worth seeing The Game.

A Perfect Murder stars Douglas as a slightly nastier high-powered businessman, who discovers his wife's (Gwyneth Paltrow, excellent in this role) infedelity and attempts to have her killed. The movie's cast is rounded out by Viggo Mortensen, who plays Paltrow's artist lover and, in a twist, becomes the man that Douglas hires to kill her. This is a remake of Alfred Hitchcock's Dial M For Murder, and it contains a striking plot, good casting, and great acting. As in Bound, each character in the movie has his or her own agenda, and the viewer is somehow given all the clues but still kept in suspense throughout the movie. Also like Bound, it involves a love triangle that turns into a triangle of intrigue, deception, and betrayal. Like the rest of the movies mentioned above, it contains intricate plot points, great characterization, and intriguing elements of mystery, action, and suspense. All of these movies are thought-provoking, great to watch with a group of people, good for more than one viewing, and provide much more intrigue and intelligence than your average, brainless, plot-hole ridden, blockbuster movie.