The Zero Theorem
Directed by Terry Gilliam
After a decade and a half of misfires (The Brothers Grimm), abandoned projects (The Man Who Killed Don Quixote), and plagued productions (The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus), The Zero Theorem marks Terry Gilliam’s return to a comfort zone, of sorts, in its proximity to the themes and style of his greatest triumph. Indeed, there’s no mistaking his latest effort’s similarities to Brazil: both take place in an information-overloaded/deadened future in which an alienated hero increasingly confuses fantasy and reality in the search for emancipation. But Brazil possessed a unique sensibility and attitude; Theorem, in contrast, feels empty, underdeveloped, and unintentionally self-parodic.
The new film stars Christoph Waltz as Qohen Leth, a computer programmer for a mammoth information company presided over by Big Brother-esque Management (Matt Damon). Haunted by countless phobias within a shrill and vapid society, Qohen requests to work from home—a burnt-out cathedral—in order to answer a long-delayed phone call that will ostensibly relate the meaning of his life. He receives his wish, but only by heading Management’s insanity-inducing project to discover nothing less than the purpose—or purposelessness—of the entire universe.
Unsurprisingly, Gilliam’s approach toward such lofty existential material (as scripted by Pat Rushin) emphasizes art direction and broad performances over coherent storytelling. A marvel of set design (Qohen’s pad is conceived as an architectural mash-up of the sacred and profane), Theorem also drowns key narrative and character details in a din of visual jokes that only reinforce an obvious point: that the world has forsaken spiritual and emotional depths for the technological surface. The unresolved “Is It All Just Happening in the Character’s Head?” ending remains ambiguous not for its complexity but for being rushed and confusedly executed.
As if aware of its derivativeness, Gilliam packs his film with rote wink-nudge references to his own past work; more egregiously, he also attempts to deflect any charges of pretension by transforming a talented supporting cast (David Thewlis, Tilda Swinton) into a carnival of grotesques. This proves especially painful in the case of a fetishized Mélanie Thierry as Qohen’s love interest—without a relatable human connection at its core Theorem undermines the very values it purports to champion.
Opens September 19