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The Zero Theorem (2014)

Sum Kind of Wonderful

Terry Gilliam puts the "make" in "filmmaking". Whether backed by major studios or literally begging in the street for financing, he always comes through with visually arresting art that feels captured and dragged out of our collective unconscious' Nostalgia Wing. This has led to indelible classics (Time Bandits), cult sensations (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas), and a disastrous project so unbelievable it was turned into a movie about Gilliam making a movie (Lost in La Mancha). The problem with unbridled imagination is that it takes a deft touch to reign in as entertainment, and Gilliam's filmography is peppered with ambitious narrative failures. I place The Zero Theorem among them, while also recommending it.

Christoph Waltz place Qohen, an office drone toiling in the kind of dystopian future that caused Spider Jerusalem to head for the mountains: customized advertisements follow pedestrians on ubiquitous video monitors; news reporters gossip about the First Church of Batman; and thousands of drugged-out, non-descript escapism addicts make their living crunching meaningless data in the bowels of a vague global conglomerate called Mancom. The Zero Theorem's landscape is almost as unruly as that run-on sentence, with every frame so jacked on A/V stimuli as to render focal points meaningless. In the center of this depressing kandy kaleidoscope is Qohen, who just wants to work from home and avoid people altogether.

Mancom's Management (personified by Matt Damon) has other plans. He assigns Qohen to solve the titular maze of equations, which asserts that human life actually has no purpose. This isn't a stretch for our protagonist, who lives alone in an old church and gets twitchy when anyone asks why he refers to himself in the royal "we" (Qohen's dubious sanity makes him perfect for the gig). Why would a company want to scientifically prove pointlessness? I'll leave that for you to discover.

Right now, I want to talk about Mélanie Thierry. She plays Bainsley, a lively professional sex object who struts into Qohen's life. Of course she winds up falling for the wounded weirdo, and becomes the catalyst for his seeking to bring down the entire corrupt system. But aside from The Zero Theorem's striking production design and costumes, Thierry is the film's big selling point (yes, even above Waltz, whom I adore). The actress brings a sultry attainability to the part that makes her utterly believable as both the subject of strangers' lust and as a character we want to see find true love.

Oddly, the romance sinks the movie--along with stale monologues about corporatism. The mystery of existence is unsolvable, especially in art, and shoe-horning in a charming but painfully contrived love story only subtracts from the headier and more spiritual aspects of any endeavor. For awhile, I thought Gilliam had something original to tell us about What It All Means; turns out, he just wanted to say, "Many, you've gotta check out Dark City!"

As we realize Gilliam and writer Pat Rushin have saddled their visual flights of fancy with a story and ideas that have nowhere to go and less to say, really, The Zero Theorem becomes an exercise in will. Damon disappears, as does the pathetically charismatic David Thewlis (he plays Qohen's wormy supervisor), and the oddities fade into conventions involving massive, exploding machines, regret, and a showdown with oblivion.

I'll give the movie this much: aside from some dodgy CGI here and there, The Zero Theorem is a marvel of practical props and sets, a fully realized world made all the more unsettling by the fact that the actors could actually touch everything (and be overwhelmed by it)* This is par for the course with Gilliam, and I'm delighted to see him achieve wonders with a (comparatively) small budget. He needs to keep an eye on those screenplays, though, if he's to continue making things that people revisit. No matter how amused I am by an intricately designed virtual-reality sex suit, nothing turns me on like great characters, ideas, and through-lines. When filmmakers ignore these key components, it's hard to see the point.

*The film gave me another reason to dislike Snowpiercer: Tilda Swinton pops up as a Qohen's virtual psychologist here, spinning the same dorky aristocrat schtick she did in Joon-ho Bong's picture. By "the same", I mean she's wearing the teeth, the glasses, the funny hair--even the over-pronounced accent that sounds like a desk clerk from Wallace & Gromit's universe. 

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