The Zeros

Michael Wilmington, Chicago Tribune movie critic

Published February 25, 2005

"The Zeros" is a real movie lark, an enjoyable road picture about a dying young man and his search for the lost, elusive love of his life. Director-writer John Ryman and star Mackenzie Astin turn this tale into something almost magical, an ambling quest along the Southern and coastal road stops, motels and karaoke clubs of America. Getting its world premiere this weekend at Facets Cinematheque, "Zeros" is a lively, funny and ultimately quite touching little movie.

"The Zeros" is so successfully reminiscent of its obvious models, the classic road movies of the "Easy Rider" '60s and "Scarecrow" '70s--so wittily written, beautifully shot and well acted--that I don't have a clue why it has been unreleased since it made the festival circuit four years ago, winning very good reviews. Certainly, it's a better, funnier comedy than the ones being artlessly cranked out by the big studios right now. It's also audacious and on target in its mix of tones and moods, the ways it shifts easily from tragedy to comedy to pathos to satire and back again.

The theme seems dark indeed. Main character Joe (Astin) is dying, and his great last dream is to be reunited with Joyce (Jennifer Morrison), with whom he spent a brief, unforgettable encounter back in his teens. But Joyce is hard to find and, along the way, Joe picks up an amiable religious cultist, Seth (John Ales), and a Joyce lookalike young stripper, Fanny (Rachel Wilson). And he clashes with a variety of loonily menacing eccentrics, including a millionaire sport cow-hunter named Durango (Sam Vlahos) and an insane ventriloquist with a look-alike dummy (Kyle Gass, Jack Black's partner in the rock group Tenacious D). Astin, the son of Patty Duke and John Astin, is likable and gifted, Ales and Wilson are wonderful sidekicks and the smaller parts are all filled with zest.

The title refers to the first decade of our new century and the deviant spelling is deliberate. Ryman intended to set "Zeros" a few years in the future, with a bleak, energy-depleted landscape, but the release wait means the movie has unwittingly become contemporary--and it feels just like today. What finally makes "Zeros" so satisfying, though, is the way Ryman finds humor and poetry in even the silliest and tawdriest artifacts of today and tomorrow and the way Joe and the movie keep dreaming of love even when the dreams seem gone. What else can you do with times like ours?

No MPAA rating. Adult (language, sexuality, drug use and comic violence).