Zero Theorem, The

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 08/18/14 14:16:23

"Gilliam's best in a decade an a half."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

SCREENED AT THE 2014 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: I wonder if writer Pat Rushin ever thought something along the lines of "this script is so screwed if we don't get Terry Gilliam" when writing "The Zero Theorem". There are other directors who would dive into the weirdness of its world, but the material seems so perfectly matched that Gilliam passing on it or expressing interest and getting bogged down in development hell or the million other things that can seemingly go wrong when Gilliam makes a movie seem like they would have killed any chances to see this.

That would have been unfortunate; for all that it has a couple of stumbles, particularly in the final scenes, it's a clever movie, filled with life even if it's about a character who initially tries to retreat from it. The filmmakers handle what are superficially big questions with the sort of wink that says they're not important at all in favor of a middle path between spirituality and pure economics that says to just have a good life, and for as much as that may sound like simple common sense, it can often be useful to manually remind oneself of such basic ideas, especially in a world that not only offers dazzling detail and distraction, both via technology and philosophy.

Consider the setting where the audience first meets Qohen Leth (Christoph Waltz); this highly neurotic man is employed by a titanic corporation whose work floor has all the forced whimsy of a dozen internet-bubble tech forms but the dehumanizing pressure on all sides of a cubicle farm or sweatshop. He's an "entity-cruncher", solving complicated modeling problems represented as visual puzzles, and believes he could work better from home, where he could wait for a potentially life-changing phone call. His supervisor Joby (David Thewlis) cannot authorize it, at least until Management (Matt Damon) recruits him to work on a theorem that has burnt out everyone else who had been charged with it. Soon, he is working in blissful solitude - at least until interrupted by pubescent IT guy Bob (Lucas Hedges) and Bainsley (Mélanie Thierry), a very persistent girl he meets the one time he accepts an invitation to a party.

Terry Gilliam is famous, among other things, for the elaborate, immersive worlds he creates, although at times it seems this is much for his detailed noodling in the margins as their inherent impact. With The Zero Theorem, he and his team do some of their best work yet. Qohen's office and the street outside his home are a colorful, chaotic fantasia, a representation of overstimulated, often shallow modern life. The bald Qohen lives in a former cathedral, although much of the iconography has been covered up in drop cloths - he is a truth-seeker like the monks of old, but there is little room for spirituality in this world. It extends past that, though - there are virtual worlds where Qohen manipulates ideas too abstracted to be explained, as well as a paradise and an ominous void that depict the hopes and fears of what awaits beyond the world we know.

Heady material, which Gilliam and Rushin don't shy away from addressing directly, especially as the film heads into the finale, although happily not in the simple "spirituality good, progress bad!" paradigm. Despite the heaviness of it, it also seems like a while since Gilliam has been this lively, both visually - for all that it's there, the director seems less obsessed with showing decay than usual, imagining a future that's fun in its colorful garishness - and in tone. Witticisms spring from lips without being mumbled or undercut, and absurdity abounds.

This comes through via a number of tremendously entertaining performances. Christoph Waltz is excellent in the lead, bringing great humanity to a very mannered performance. Qohen is written as peculiar enough that there's no way for Waltz to make his growth and change in engagement subtle, but this herky-jerky forward motion is at least able to grab the audience and build something that can anchor the film. Mélanie Thierry plays the other pole, a girl we know is at least somewhat special by being the only one at a party not staring at a hone or tablet, but who handles the twists of the character well, revealing a lost soul behind the early perk and climbing out of it. Newcomer Lucas Hedges winds up playing a surprisingly stable center for Waltz to work against, while David Thewlis, Tilda Swinton, and others make memorable impressions in smaller roles. Matt Damon is in and out of the movie, but turns out to be a great secret weapon when a laugh is needed at the start and an explanation at the end.

The movie stumbles at the end, with the story reaching for something more grandiose and Gilliam just constitutionally unable to give a movie a conventional finale. Still, it's likely the best thing he's done in at least fifteen years, and a movie with this pedigree so clearly made for the big screen deserves better than the on-demand and maybe, a month later, if your town is lucky, theatrical release it's getting (where it's getting that; it went straight from Fantasia to video in Canada). But that sort of figures - these days, a movie so clearly suited to Gilliam can't make it to theaters without some sort of challenge.

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