It’s been a rough couple of decades to be a Terry Gilliam fan. Not just because he hasn't been as prolific as you’d like him to be, with several false starts or projects that never made it to a greenlight—most famously “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote,” which actually made it to production before falling apart. Because the films we have seen, at least since the start of the 21st century, have felt compromised (“The Brothers Grimm”), muddled (“The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus”) or borderline-unwatchable (“ Tideland”). We’re always rooting for Gilliam, but the recent run of films had made us wonder whether it was becoming something of a fools’ errand to do so. Fortunately, his latest, “The Zero Theorem,” restores some of the faith. It’s not an unreserved return to form, but it’s an admirably ambitious and thoughtful sci-fi mindbender that movingly takes stock as the director enters his 70s.
The film, written by first-time screenwriter Pat Rushin, centers on Qohen Leth (Christoph Waltz), a nervous, very bald man who lives in a church, has spent his life waiting for a mysterious phone call, and works as an "esoteric data" cruncher for the Mancorp corporation. His only real point of contact in the world is his supervisor Joby (David Thewlis), and all he really wants is to be allowed to work at home so he doesn’t miss his phone call.
After much nagging, Joby introduces Qohen (pronounced, as he’s keen to remind everyone, as "Cohen") to the company’s leader Management (Matt Damon), and they let him have his wish in exchange for working on solving the Zero Theorem—an equation where 0 = 100, and that essentially proves that existence is meaningless, something that his own temperament is uniquely suited to. It’s sent plenty of others crazy over time, and threatens to send Qohen that way, but can the encroachment on his home of eccentric semi-call-girl Bainsley (Melanie Thierry), and Management’s son Bob (Lucas Hedges) help him keep his grip on reality? Or will they tip him over the edge?
The film’s opening sections definitely make you a little anxious. While Gilliam’s future world is bright, colorful and distinctive, it also feels a bit passé—more “Strange Days” or even “Hackers” than the bold visions of “Brazil” (the closest cousin in Gilliam’s filmography, though this is a different beast). At a party, people are all listening to iPads, which feels like a strange thing to do when technology has moved on so far elsewhere, and Qohen uses a program that seemingly nods to “Minecraft” for his work.
It also doesn’t help you settle into the film that Waltz starts things off on rather unsure footing, led by tics and often barely audible. It’s clearly a deliberate choice, and not necessarily a bad one, as he opens up over time as Qohen is drawn out of his shell, but at first, it feels like quirk for quirk’s sake. It’s not the only example, either: Qohen refers to himself in the first-person plural, which eventually pays off, and Bob calls everyone else Bob rather than remembering their real names, which doesn’t. Altogether, you start to feel an initial lurch in the stomach that another Gilliam misfire is unfolding.
But once Qohen retreats into his church (much of the film is set there, presumably for budgetary reasons—the director has said that the movie is his lowest budget in three decades, but it doesn’t feel cheap), things settle down nicely as Gilliam lays out his themes. Ultimately, “The Zero Theorem” is a film about depression and fear of death, with Qohen haunted by an image of a black hole, and looking for a reason to justify his own existence before he shuffles off the mortal coil. Almost everything in the film is building towards this, making it one of Gilliam’s more thematically coherent works, and without wanting to psychoanalyze too much, it feels like the filmmaker, now 72, is confronting his own mortality to some extent.
As such, for all the film’s flaws, it feels like a very personal and moving piece of work as Qohen moves towards some kind of acceptance that his time on Earth will be brief in the grand scale of things, and that there’ll be nothing to come after (a scene with Damon late in the game makes it clear that Gilliam is no believer in the afterlife). It’s not so much a film about a search for meaning, as an embrace of meaninglessness, and it’s fascinating in that respect.
Much of this is helped by Waltz, who once he becomes less mumbly gives the most atypical and human performance we’ve seen since he broke out in “Inglourious Basterds.” The support is mostly strong—Hedges (who appeared in “Moonrise Kingdom”) is winning, if a touch mannered, Thewlis brings a lot of humor and even warmth, Damon is typically good value, and Tilda Swinton has fun in an extended cameo as Qohen’s virtual psychiatrist (a few other familiar faces pop up, including Ben Whishaw, Peter Stormare, Rupert Friend, Robin Williams and “Game Of Thrones” star Gwendoline Christie).
Not quite as memorable, through no fault of her own, is Thierry. She’s decent enough in the role, but there’s not much to the part beyond a sexed-up Manic Pixie Dream Girl archetype, and there’s not much payoff to the role beyond vacillating between whore and virgin. It’s endemic of the film’s view towards woman (something cemented by the appearance of a skin-baring pizza delivery girl), leering and a bit icky, and it pretty much dropped the film down a grade all by itself.
That’s the major bum note to the film, but if you can look past it, there’s much to like, from Waltz’s performance to the typically rich production and
costume design. It might not be a return to the form of “Time Bandits,” “Brazil,” “The Fisher King” and “ Twelve Monkeys,” but it’s a lot better than what we’ve had from Gilliam in the last decade, and we sincerely hope there’s plenty more to