You could be forgiven for not realizing The Zero Theorem existed. After all, to be blunt, for a Terry Gilliam film, it has surprisingly flown well under the radar. From most accounts, it appears to have been one of the smoothest productions of Gilliam’s career. Sadly—and perhaps a bit perversely—that has translated into one of his least ambitious films. That is not to say it’s a bad movie; it merely feels like Gilliam rehashing many of his pet themes from his better films.
Gilliam immediately puts himself in the hole by strongly echoing Brazil through a futuristic world that finds one lonely man doing his best to deal with the bureaucracy of the massive corporation for which he works. We are introduced to an office drone named Qohen (Christoph Waltz) who is one of the best workers at the ominously named Mancom Corporation. While he excels at his work as an “entity cruncher”—a position that appears to combine computer programming with accounting, Qohen is completely miserable. Trapped in a deep existential angst, he spends all his spare time at home, staring into an image of a black hole (a blunt metaphor, even by Gilliam’s standards), while he waits for an important phone call that never comes.
Claiming he is dying because his numerous crippling neuroses have caused all his hair to fall out, he begs Joby (David Thewlis), his ineffectual supervisor, to let him work from home. It is unclear if Qohen actually believes he is dying or is just using his numerous fears as an excuse to never have to leave home.
After a brief meeting with the head of Mancom, an aloof figure known only as Management (Matt Damon), Qohen is given his wish to work from home through a special assignment on a project to prove the Zero Theorem. Put simply, Management is convinced that the currently expanding universe is an anomaly in history and that it will eventually start contracting into a black hole, finally bringing the universe back to zero. Qohen does not question the potential ramifications of proving such a theory. He simply goes about his work because Joby promises him Management will make sure he finally receives his phone call—a call he believes will explain to him his reason for being.
But as the task of proving the theory becomes more than he can handle, Qohen loses his grip and—in a clever twist to Pat Rushin’s screenplay—actually becomes saner than when he started on the project. Management, using several security cameras in Qohen’s home to spy on him, observes this change in his behavior and dispatches two very different characters/plot mechanisms to get him back on track.
The first of these characters is Bainsley (Mélanie Thierry), a prostitute playing the role of a manic pixie dream girl type who promises Qohen happiness through a virtual reality world. The other character is Bob (Lucas Hedges), a teenaged computer programmer who also happens to be Management’s son. That neither of these characters are unable to get Qohen closer to proving the zero theorem is not surprising. Instead—in a pleasant bit of unexpected sentiment—they help Qohen reconnect with his humanity and find themselves inspired to see themselves as more than tools of Management.
That plot description probably sounds a little more optimistic and straightforward than you would expect from Gilliam. And that is part of the problem with The Zero Theorem.
The cynicism and bitter irony of Gilliam’s best films are present in the background of scenes here or as throwaway gags with the brief glimpses of the world outside Qohen’s home. Gilliam’s view of the future is a world gone mad with technology. People wander the streets in colorful outfits, gawking at their phones/tablets, all of them wearing earbuds and ignoring the squalor that surrounds them. Commercials follow pedestrians along a horizontal video screen that runs for blocks (including one featuring a TV preacher/pitchman played by the late Robin Williams in an uncredited cameo). Loud, horribly atonal music assaults Qohen every time he exits his home. The process of crunching entities resembles playing a video game while pedaling an exercise bike.
Unlike the bleak futuristic worlds presented in Brazil and Twelve Monkeys, in The Zero Theorem, the threat of destruction doesn’t come from man, but from an uncaring universe that the human race cannot control. Perhaps this is the reason that Gilliam uses the film to engage a little more of his playful side. While this lighter touch leads to some eye-catching production and art design by David Warren and Adrian Curelea (Qohen’s home—a decaying former church—is a gorgeous highlight), it also deflates some of the darker elements that Gilliam tries to mix into Qohen’s journey back from the abyss.
But perhaps it is just as well that the film turns away from the bleaker concepts that take up much of the first act. The scenes of Qohen dealing with the dehumanizing effects of Mancom’s impenetrable bureaucracy as he seeks a medical leave feels like a restaging of large chunks of Brazil—a comparison that highlights just how thin The Zero Theorem actually is.
The film is at its best when focusing on the slowly evolving friendship between Qohen and Bob. While Qohen has had far more life experience than Bob—eventually revealing a past that is far more traditional than would initially be expected of such a shell-shocked character, he is emotionally on the same immature level as Bob. This allows for the two characters to mirror each other through their flummoxed reactions to women, excitement about something as mundane as pizza delivery, and admire each other’s skills as entity crunchers. The realization sets in that Bob provides a reminder to Qohen of what it’s like to live life without the existential dread that seeped into his life while Qohen stands as a cautionary tale for Bob.
I wish I could say that the same depth and sweetness highlights Qohen’s interactions with Bainsley. Unfortunately, Bainsley is treated almost completely as a plot point—namely, the clichéd prostitute whose job is to seduce and manipulate Qohen. That her narrative arc is to develop into another stereotype—the hooker with a heart of gold—is a sad statement on the lack of imagination that has been put into the film’s female characters. It’s worth noting that the only other major female character in the film isn’t even human. She is a virtual psychiatry program named Dr. Shrink-Rom (Tilda Swinton) who has a more believable connection to humanity than Bainsley. Maybe Gilliam is trying to point out that women in this depressing future have been marginalized to the point where they are only useful as sexualized objects. But if that is the case, he is awfully subtle about it while hammering away at his other points.
Helped along by a typically fun Waltz performance that walks the line between desperation and wry humor, The Zero Theorem does succeed in containing more recognizable humanity than a lot of Gilliam’s films, but it comes without the vicious bite of his better dystopian fantasies. It’s a handsomely put together film that feels like a great artist simply doodling between projects. Maybe I’m being too hard on the film (except when it comes to its regressive view of women), but knowing Gilliam is capable of so much more, it’s hard not to be a little disappointed when it feels like he is phoning it in.
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