Review: Terry Gilliam's 'The Zero Theorem' is better to think about than watch
Terry Gilliam's latest, "The Zero Theorem," concerns a reclusive malcontent (Christoph Waltz) struggling with the search for the meaning of life.
‘The Zero Theorem’
Director: Terry Gilliam
Stars: Christoph Waltz, Melanie Thierry
2 (out of 5) Globes
Fate hasn’t always been kind to Terry Gilliam. On the other hand, he hasn’t always made things easy either. His last few films have been difficult to enjoy — meandering, noisy, ugly and not a little annoying. Dig into them and you’ll find a sound structure; “Tideland” is not the most pleasurable film, but it is an aching look at isolation and loss (and featured, in Jodelle Ferland, one of the all-time great kid performances). “The Zero Theorem” is more “Tideland” than the pricey and hideous “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus.” It too grates on the senses, but at the center is an unusually brutal and unflattering portrait of loners.
Christoph Waltz is this one’s loner, and he likes to make things quirkily difficult for people: Not only does he spell his first name “Qohen,” but he pluralizes himself (that is, he says “we” rather than “I”). He’s the lone malcontent in a dirty, grimy, tech-heavy future, where hideous, individually tailored ads trail people as they walk down streets and everyone stares at bulky video screens. He’s the only unhappy person in this world where everyone is too easily made happy (or at least distracted). He just wants to hole up inside his cavernous cavern, and he gets his wish: His evil boss (Matt Damon) allows him to work at home, providing he tend to a mysterious theorem that may involve his favorite subject. And that would be a topic Gilliam has covered before: the meaning of life.
Much of Gilliam’s work concerns people like him: terminal dreamers who don’t fit into regimented social norms, who don’t handle corporate overlords so well, who would rather live inside their heads then deal with cold, wretched reality. But none of his protagonists have been as unpleasant — or as foolish — as Qohen. Waltz doesn’t try to sugarcoat Qohen: He’s remote and humorless, never gelling with the crazy grotesques — including a hotcha femme semi-fatale (Melanie Thierry) and a viral therapist played by Tilda Swinton — who stumble into his orbit. He’s too far gone to reciprocate genuine human warmth, preferring to stew in his own misery, which was cultivated partly by the world in which he’s lucked into, partly by himself. When one hissable character brutally sizes him up, one has to admit the accusations aren't wrong.
It’s a sobering treatise — the opposite of Gilliam’s usual m.o. But that doesn’t make “The Zero Theorem” easier to watch. It’s a film about a noisy, messy world that itself is noisy and messy, with Gilliam's usual extra-wide angle lenses rubbing our faces in dense junk. This all theoretically works, but in practice it’s a drag. It lacks the clever writing, the good jokes, even the occasional sincere pathos that marks his finest work, when hecould still wrangle his fantasies into a moderately tidy shape. It's not the money that makes his best films great; it's the writing. For all his films’ talk of freedom and chucking the shackles of imprisonment, he needs restrictions, and more importantly he needs collaborators: the other members of Monty Python, Tom Stoppard (on “Brazil”), Richard LaGravanese (“The Fisher King”), David and Janet Peoples (“12 Monkeys”). Pat Rushin, "The Zero Theorem"'s screenwriter, is not a great teammate for Gilliam; reportedly the script was his first. “Brazil” too is jam-packed with stuff, but the stuff tended to be witty and satirical. This has its moments, but it’s more like “Tideland”: It’s more enriching to think about afterwards than in the moment — though it's still sometimes enriching in the moment too.
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