The name Terry Gilliam and the words “checkered career” seem to go hand in hand. After Time Bandits was a hit, both Brazil and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen fell victim to studio politics, and the latter, which had gone well over-budget, was a massive bomb. But The Fisher King was a success (even winning an Oscar for Mercedes Ruehl’s performance), and 12 Monkeys became his biggest hit to date. Then Fear and Loathing was a failure on its initial release (though it has since become a classic), and worse, Gilliam got bogged down for years in attempting to make his Don Quixote film (which he’s still trying to do).
He eventually moved on, to the moderately successful but quickly forgotten The Brothers Grimm and the generally derided Tideland. The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus did well overall and got two Oscar nominations, but that didn’t prevent his next film from taking forever to come out, and even then only in limited release. And sadly, it’s not hard to see why. Despite its strengths, mostly due to the cast, The Zero Theorem feels like a retread of Gilliam’s past glories without any of their thematic depth and not enough of their resonance.
At some indeterminate point in the future, Qohen Leth (Christoph Waltz) works as a number cruncher/data processor for Mancom, an immensely powerful corporation. The antisocial Leth prefers to work from home, where he awaits a phone call which he believes will tell him of his purpose in life. Pressured to attend a Christmas party at the house of his manager Joby (David Thewlis), he encounters Mancom’s head, simply called Management (Matt Damon), who cryptically alludes to Qohen’s yearnings. Qohen also meets Bainsley (Mélanie Thierry), a spirited young woman who takes an immediate interest in him.
Qohen gets his wish to work from home: he is assigned to prove the “Zero theorem”, which states that 0 = 100%, or that existence is meaningless. Others have spent ages attempting to prove it, without success, and Qohen too finds himself making only marginal progress. Assistance arrives, in the form of Managment’s hacker son Bob (Lucas Hedges), while Bainsely, who turns out to be an escort in Mancom’s employ, joins with Qohen in virtual fantasies.
The rest of the film deals with Qohen’s attempts to grapple with the theorem, his relationship with Bainsley, and his slowly growing friendship with Bob, through which we learn how he came to his present state.
At its core, The Zero Theorem is about how the quest for something beyond the limits of our knowledge can obstruct our chances for real happiness. It’s really quite a sad film, and without giving too much away (not that it really matters), Qohen is a rather tragic figure, who ends the film at peace, but having missed his best opportunity for a happy life. It’s like the ending of Brazil, only where that film was almost jaw-droppingly bleak, The Zero Theorem is quiet and melancholy.
Had the film really nailed it, it could have been really moving. But it falls short, and much of that is because of Pat Rushin’s murky script. This quote from Wikipedia really says a lot: “Rushin wrote the 145-page first draft in ten days, with ‘no idea what [he] was doing’.” And watching the film, it sometimes feels like Gilliam simply shot that first draft. The core theme of the film is a pretty simple one, but the film tries to be something of a mindfuck as well, and all of the bells and whistles merely make the film hazier and slower paced. It doesn’t help that, after progressing comparatively smoothly for the first 80% of it, the last 20% of the film feels rushed and choppy.
The script is filled with conceits we’ve seen a million times before: the omnipowerful corporation of the future, the woman who is seemingly devoted to the hero but is really just doing her job, virtual reality, and of course, the teenage genius-hacker. And there’s a distinct lack of freshness; the film often feels, in terms of style and content, as if it had been made in 1997 and was simply shelved until now. The dialogue is rarely truly bad–I can’t really remember many lines, good or bad–but it rarely helps the film. It’s best when it deals with the emotions and leaves the science-fiction by the wayside.
And the ending–though how much of that is Gilliam and how much Rushin I cannot say–is a pretty flimsy attempt at being mind-bending, with Qohen and Management debating in some virtual void, and Qohen tangling with hoses (ducts?) before leaping into a black hole, and…well, the final moments are actually fairly nice. Had the film really earned them, I would say it was a good ending. But given that the film almost arbitrarily plunges into this final movement, it is merely an ending.
Gilliam’s direction really doesn’t help. While he could never be called the most disciplined of directors, he overstuffs his images here, filling the screen with details and colors and movement, which in his best films captured the madness of the films’ worlds, but here grows wearisome and off-putting. And he doesn’t seem to have the firmest grasp on the story either, and the film tends to meander; I’m not sure if my relative fatigue wasn’t partly to blame, but watching the film at times feels like watching a film on TV–with commercial breaks and everything–at 3 in the morning. It generally feels distant and…well, hazy, with the occasional sharp detail that keeps you invested.
In this case, it’s the actors that keep the film together. Waltz is an inherently likable actor–which made his casting in Inglourious Basterds so apt, since Hans Landa is clearly a monster–a man who relishes the title of “the Jew Hunter” because it is a testament to his persistence and intelligence. Without Waltz’s charm, Landa would be almost intolerably hateful–with it, he steals the show and an assload of awards with it.
So he is likewise well-cast as the obsessive, inhibited Leth, who could easily have been tiresome and obnoxious. Instead, he brings to life the yearning, broken-down corporate drone who once, as we learn, had something of a normal life, but when it fell apart he tried every avenue on a quest for understanding, finally getting a call that, to him, promised to divulge his purpose in life–and then he was cut off. Waltz finds the full scope of Leth’s pain and humanity, which has not been lost so much as suppressed. It’s not one of his greatest performances, but he is far better than the script deserves.
Thierry, too, takes a potentially mediocre role and brings such life and spirit to the table that it elevates the film as a whole. It’s hard not to fall in love with Bainsley as Qohen does–her cheerful inscrutability and boundless energy are quite enchanting. There’s a scene between Qohen and Bainsley towards the end, quite a poignant scene, where she tries to convince him to leave Mancom and his quest behind and leave with her. But Qohen, whose faith in her has been shaken by the revelation of her profession, cannot bring himself to trust her–even as Bob is urging him to do it–and she leaves, heartbroken.
It’s not the first time in Gilliam’s canon a couple has tried to escape their fate and met with tragedy–the endings of Brazil and 12 Monkeys are likewise star-crossed–but the strength of Waltz and Thierry’s performances makes it work nonetheless.
Thewlis is gregariously amusing as Joby, and he gives the film a down-to-earth humor that it sorely needs; sadly, after the first act, he only appears sporadically, but he’s most welcome–he even manages to make the running gag of pronouncing “Qohen” (KO-ehn) as “Quinn” work well enough. And while his character is tremendously dated in conception and design–he dresses like a skater from the late 90s, and his obsession with pizza, the timelessness of pizza aside, is similarly outmoded–Hedges is fine as Bob, ultimately overcoming the more irritating qualities of the script to create an agreeable portrait of his and Qohen’s budding friendship.
Damon is rather oddly cast, and the script doesn’t give him a whole lot to work with–he’s mostly there to be monotonically cryptic–but he gets the job done. Tilda Swinton also appears as a digital therapist Qohen consults; it’s not really one of her more distinguished performances, especially when she starts rapping. Suffice to say, she’s much, much better in Snowpiercer,
I had previously predicted that Zero Theorem’s production design would be a contender for Best Production Design at my next film awards. Unfortunately, that probably won’t be the case. David Warren’s designs are highly variable; on one hand, the abandoned church where Qohen lives and works is well done, and some details of the future are properly colorful, but elsewhere, a limited budget and an overly busy tone take over, and the film feels derivative not only of Gilliam’s past works but also of The Fifth Element, which itself teetered on the brink of visual chaos. The film doesn’t look terrible, but it doesn’t really have a unique aesthetic voice.
Nicola Pecorini’s cinematography is, like Gilliam’s direction, too often unfocused and vague. We get plenty of color and movement–too much, in fact. There are some fine images, but on the whole the film is something of a visual letdown. Carlo Poggioli’s costumes are quite good, though they too mostly remind one of other, better films. The special effects, like the production design, are variable and clearly constrained by the budget; the more ambitious effects tend to be all right, but the prevalent advertisements and computer programs tend to look rather cheap.
The sound mixing, especially early on, is fairly muddy and further distances the viewer at the start (though this may have just been the theater I saw the film in); on the other hand, George Fenton’s score is excellent: eerie, atmospheric, darkly witty, and often quite beautiful, it’s arguably the film’s strongest component, and had the film reduced the dialogue and let Fenton’s music carry a little more of the narrative load, it might have been markedly better.
Terry Gilliam has a reputation for long, difficult shoots and inflated or exceeded budgets. But, according to Wikipedia, the film was shot in a little over six weeks for something under $15 million, and it shows. There are some very good things in it, and at its core it’s a rather universal story about the quest for greater meaning in a world where there may be none. It’s not a bad film, but it’s a long way from a great one; perhaps, like its characters, it should have focused on the human elements and let the transcendence alone.