Movie Review: “The Zero Theorem”

Christoph Waltz, Melanie Thierry, David Thewlis, Lucas Hedge, Matt Damon
Terry Gilliam

As someone who’s been a disciple of all things Terry Gilliam for the better part of 30 years, it seems pretty obvious that his most innovative filmmaking days are probably behind him. Those of us that continue to return to his well keep our expectations firmly in check. We don’t expect mind blowing “Brazil”-level satirical explorations, or profound science fiction trips such as “12 Monkeys,” but we are happy to indulge our favorite mad uncle when he unveils something a little less groundbreaking, from somewhere in between, and that’s more or less what “The Zero Theorem” is.

Set in some nearby hazy nether-future – a grotesque exaggeration of our own reality – the film revolves around hypochondriacal misanthrope Qohen Leth (Christoph Waltz, looking like Bob Geldof after he shaved all his hair off in “The Wall”), a number-crunching programmer working for a soul-sucking mega-corporation called Mancom. He appears to be more than adept at his job, but awful at the rest of life. With virtually no social skills to speak of, Qohen (pronounced “Cohen”), when he isn’t at work, keeps himself holed up in a dilapidated mansion in a sketchy part of town, waiting for a mysterious phone call that he hopes will bring change. His sole desire is to be allowed to work from home, so he can be close to the phone and away from people.

He begrudgingly attends a party thrown by his obnoxious, clueless supervisor Joby (David Thewlis), where a chance encounter with Management (Matt Damon playing over 50) allows him to plead his case, only to seemingly fall on deaf ears. Later, he’s saved from choking by a comely partygoer named Bainsley (Mélanie Thierry). Curiously, not long after the party, his request to work from home is inexplicably granted, only there’s a catch: He must try to crack the zero theorem, a mathematical formula that when solved could reveal the meaning of life. To aid him in his work, Management sends his teenage son Bob (Lucas Hedges) to assist, and before long, Bainsley reappears as well.

As Gilliam’s films often are, “The Zero Theorem” is a meditation on frustration, and the madness and anxiety and depression that result from it. But now the world seems to have caught up with Gilliam’s satirical sensibilities. The sort of Gilliam ideas that at one time were perceived as fanciful or witty are now the horror outside your front door or inside your computer monitor. There used to be an escape, or at least an attempt to escape. Now there seems to be little choice but to surrender.

Or perhaps this is just the perception of one fan that has grown older and more jaded alongside one of his most treasured cinematic visionaries. In 1985, “Brazil” felt like a sort of improbable social science fiction. Today, almost nothing in “The Zero Theorem” feels more than about a month away: Targeted advertising, hidden cameras, virtual reality programs – all of this is now. The horror is here and Gilliam holds up the mirror, allowing us to gawk at our own shrieks.

Over the years, Gilliam’s had so many unfortunate mishaps occur during the making of his movies that it’s refreshing to see one that seems to have come off without any hitches. There don’t appear to have been any compromises made here, either. For a movie centered on a depressed social outcast, it’s often dazzlingly beautiful. It’s as though Gilliam and cinematographer Nicola Pecorini are trying to will Technicolor back into existence. Perhaps this rainbow-soaked world is designed solely to aggravate the protagonist’s psyche. In the past, Terry hasn’t always had great luck with CGI, but what’s used here meshes seamlessly with the elaborate practical sets and effects created for film. Above all else, it is certainly a marvel to behold, and unmistakably a Terry Gilliam film in the way we imagine a movie might be when we hear that name.

Waltz is obviously a great actor, with Oscars and BAFTAs to prove it, but Qohen is a peculiar fit – although to be fair, he might’ve been for almost any actor (the shaved eyebrows alone are difficult to get past). For the first hour or so, his removed, withdrawn demeanor is tough to relate to. He’s just not quite a Sam Lowry or James Cole, even though in so many ways he’s both. Though it takes a while to get there, Qohen changes for the better in the third act. The movie is uninterested in making it easy for you.

According to Monty Python (of which Gilliam was a sixth), the meaning of life is “Try and be nice to people, avoid eating fat, read a good book every now and then, get some walking in, and try and live together in peace and harmony with people of all creeds and nations.” “The Zero Theorem” doesn’t go too many steps farther than that, but then, given the fact that it’s this particular filmmaker, there was no more chance of finding the ultimate truth than there was of the actual Holy Grail popping up in the final scene.

It makes a strange sort of sense that “The Zero Theorem” would be the third entry in an unofficial trilogy that includes “Brazil” and “12 Monkeys,” as the third movie in a trilogy is often the weakest, but that doesn’t mean that, like “Return of the Jedi” or “Once Upon a Time in Mexico,” it isn’t still a damn fine movie in its own right. It’s by no means a “Spider-Man 3.”