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It’s hard to find a way into The Zero Theorem, a facetiously wacky tale about man’s search for the meaning of life in a chaotic modern world. Obviously the big question is not going to be answered to anyone’s satisfaction, especially in a Terry Gilliam movie, so the important thing is the ride and not the destination. Something of a roller coaster and fairly bumpy, the ride is the problem here.
This is unmistakably a film by Terry Gilliam, whose humorously futuristic visuals (the action is set a bit in the future) expressively mock the commercialized, big business, computer-ridden life of today. Though it was shot in Bucharest in just 36 days, it looks busy and expensive but at the same time lacks the dazzling special effects of the new American studio and Asian fantasy films. The British-French-Romanian coprod keeps falling into a disappointing middle ground both conceptually and technically. The inventively chaotic sets and absurdly colored costumes vibrate on a vaguely Philip K. Dick wavelength that should attract the attention of young Comic-Con style audiences with a strong interest in dystopic visions of the future, though they may be disappointed it’s not in 3D.
Playing an introverted, middle-aged computer genius with a retro preference for peace and quiet, Christoph Waltz is the top “entity cruncher” for Mancom. His madness lies in believing he will receive a phone call that will explain the meaning of existence. The opening shot inadvertently flashes on Gravity: a naked, bald man whirls through space toward a black hole, which is sucking everyone and everything into it. The man is Waltz, unrecognizable to fans of his ironic Django Unchained and Inglourious Basterds characters, forced to act with a shaven head and annoying, ever-present psychiatric distress. This includes repeating umpteen times to his jovial work supervisor David Thewlis that his name is Qohen, not Quinn — just one of several good gags run into the ground. Another is his use of the plural “we” when talking about himself, and most audiences will agree with multiple requests in the film that he stop talking like the Queen.
Quaintly enough, he lives in a spacious old church, sleeps in the organ and works on a wall-sized computer. Irony: he’s looking for the meaning of life in a church under the watchful gaze of a company surveillance camera, which has taken the place of the head of Jesus on the crucifix. When he reluctantly opens the old wooden door, high-decibel talking street signs bombard him, selling everything from tropical vacations to membership in the Church of Batman the Redeemer. Pushing his way through this candy-colored, chaotic and confusing world, he reaches Mancom and his glass work station, which looks like a slot machine in Las Vegas. The film’s whole multicolored production design by David Warren recalls the animated half of The Congress, though the effect is rather less fascinating.
Escaping over-exposure, Matt Damon makes only a few authoritative appearances as Management. He is first glimpsed at a party dressed in animal prints that blend in with the furniture, as he listens to Qohen plead to be allowed to work at home, where he feels much more productive. Realizing the genius is in a tailspin, Management sends the irresistible blonde sex worker Bainsley (a very funny Melanie Thierry from The Princess of Montpensier) to cheer him up. Qohen is tempted by her none-too-subtle charms, particularly after she invites him on her virtual sex site in a special plugged-in version.
Still our man can’t solve the Zero Theorem, which is basically the riddle of life. So Management sends his own son, the 15-year-old genius Bob (Lucas Hedges, who played the evil scout in Moonrise Kingdom), to help him out of his anguish and frustration. He also gets a hand from a hilarious Tilda Swinton, who is beyond kooky as Dr. Shrink-Rom, a pointy-headed online psychologist who takes a shine to patient Qohen.
It doesn’t really add up to much, beyond a timely reminder that it would be better for everyone to stop uploading and downloading and just unplug and be human. The dialogue and ideas in Pat Rushin’s stuffed screenplay can be quite funny, and the cast carries them off well.
Gilliam’s frequent DP Nicola Pecorini bring a strong sense of continuity with the look of the director’s previous work, though the choice to shoot on 35mm film in 2D rather than digital is counter-intuitive. Composer George Fenton, in contrast, creates a romantic-sounding score out of electronic music. The special effects have some high points too, like the rotating Rubik’s cubes that sail across the computer screen to complete a Tower of Babel construction — again, it’s a good-looking effect that occupies a tad too much screen time.
Production: Zanuck Independent in association with Zephyr Films, Mediapro Pictures, Le Pacte and Wild Side Films
Cast: Christoph Waltz, David Thewlis, Melanie Thierry, Lucas Hedges
Director: Terry Gilliam
Screenwriter: Pat Rushin
Producers: Nicolas Chartier, Dean Zanuck
Executive producer: Patrick Newall
Director of photography: Nicola Pecorini
Production designer: David Warren
Costume designer: Carlo Poggioli
Editor: Mick Audsley
Music: George Fenton
Sales: Voltage Pictures
No rating, 109 minutes
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