United Kingdom. Directed by Terry Gilliam, 2013. Starring Christoph Waltz, David Thewlis, Mélanie Thierry, Lucas Hedges. 107 minutes.
An eccentric loner struggling against a suffocating bureaucracy. A dystopian nightmare hiding beneath a colorful candy shell. Advertisements that follow you around and can’t properly determine your sex. Entertainment media that panders to the lowest common denominator. A populace so starved for spiritual sustenance that it’s willing to accept Batman as its lord and savior.
That can only mean one thing: Terry Gilliam must have a new film out.
The Zero Theorem stars Christoph Waltz as a hairless, hypochondriacal, pantophobic anhedoniac named Qohen Leth. Employed as an “entity-cruncher” (entities are like numbers, only more complex) by Mancom, he seeks permission work form home full-time–partially because he believes he’s dying, partially because his co-workers are a distraction, but mostly because he fears if he leaves the dilapidated church he bought at auction and now calls come, he’ll miss the phone call which he’s certain will give his life meaning.
Mancom’s reclusive Management (a hilariously towheaded Matt Damon) instructs Qohen’s supervisor Joby (David Thewlis) to grant the cruncher his request–but with one condition. Qohen is reassigned to “T-Zip,” an ambitious Mancom project to solve the Zero Theorem–a mathematical formula that will prove, once and for all, that the sum total of everything is nothing. Along the way, he gains two unlikely allies. Bainsley (Mélanie Thierry) is a virtual-reality sex worker who comes to feel a measure of affection for the isolated Qohen, and Bob (Lucas Hedges) is a rebellious, teenaged hardware specialist who provides tech support for both Leth’s computer and soul.
The thing about Terry Gilliam that makes his body of work so fascinating and compelling, and which allows him to remain relevant as an artist after the entertainment industry has chewed up and spat out so many other visionary filmmakers of his generation, is the fact that he seems almost incapable of producing work that isn’t personal to an almost blinkered degree. The essential Gilliam-ness of a Gilliam film automatically makes it worth watching, even if it’s an ambitious failure (The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus) or he’s gone completely round the bend (the imperfect but criminally overlooked Tideland). That’s why the only true dud in his C.V. is The Brothers Grimm, which is the one that feels like he only did it for the money.
It’s a bit of a disappointment, then, that while The Zero Theorem comes from the mind of a filmmaker whose imagination is singular to the point of madness, and yet feels recycled from so many other things. It manages to be the second film I’ve seen about a reclusive, eccentric and unbalanced computer wiz named Qohen, whose goal is to mathematically prove the mystical underpinnings of the universe: the first would, of course, be Darren Aronofsky’s π. Other bits seem cribbed from
Idiocracy, particularly the “DuMBC” television network, the Church of Batman the Redeemer, and Occupy Mall Street (offering savings of up to 100%).
Yet the most obvious cannibalism comes from Gilliam’s own body of work: his masterpiece Brazil. The requisite bureaucratic oppression is here, as is the scathing indictment of consumer culture. So is the retrofitted fantastic technology: just as Sam Lowry’s world was the ’50s gone wrong, Qohen Leth’s is the ’90s on Miracle-Gro. (Note the fascination with VR.)
It’s hard not to come away from The Zero Theorem without drawing the conclusion that Gilliam has started generating his own fanfic, and so much of the film feels like he’s trying too hard to make Brazil 2014. (Bainsley’s custom-made virtual beach, for example, or a psychiatric app named SHRINK-ROM and played to its eccentric hilt by Tilda Swinton.) Yet when it works–when Qohen logs onto Bainsley’s website while a husky-voiced lounge act sings the opening lines of “Creep,” when he has a heart-to-heart with Bob in front of an improbable array of DO NOT signs, and during the film’s brilliant, heart-breaking finale–you get that unique frisson that only a Terry Gilliam film can give you.
Crucial to this is Christoph Waltz’s performance, a bastion of sanity in a world where everybody’s trying to be stranger than the next person. The Zero Theorem is the sort of film that’s so bizarre that Ben Whishaw actually manages to distract from Peter Stormare being Peter Stormare, and the audience needs a sort of anchor of normality, even if said anchor professes a fear “of everything” and habitually refers to himself in the first-person plural. Waltz is that anchor, holding his own against Thewlis’s Eric Idle impression, Thierry’s sex-kitten antics, and whatever the hell it is Swinton thinks she’s doing.
Has Terry Gilliam run out of things to say? Time will tell, and it doesn’t really matter in this case. The Zero Theorem doesn’t show Gilliam at his best or worst, but it does show him at his Gilliam-est, and for that alone it’s worth the price of admission.