Fantastic Fest Review: The Zero Theorem

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The Zero Theorem

The best things I can say about The Zero Theorem, Terry Gilliam's latest movie, are that first of all, it broke my streak of disappointment with Gilliam films at Fantastic Fest (Tideland in 2006, The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus in 2009); and second of all, that it stuck with me vividly for days afterward. The worst things I could say are that it stuck with me in a downbeat, oppressive sort of way (although that might just have been my mood) and that it revisits many themes from Brazil without being nearly as good as that movie.

But that's something you have to deal with when you watch Gilliam's films: They are not going to be Brazil. It's like expecting Chimes at Midnight to be Citizen Kane -- you can't think that way. It's difficult to consider The Zero Theorem all on its own because you might experience delighted relief that it's better than the filmmaker's most recent three movies, but then you have to put the measuring stick away and enjoy the film on its own merits.

And there's a lot to enjoy in The Zero Theorem, starting with Christoph Waltz in the lead at Qohen Leth. It's clear right away that Qohen isn't the most mentally stable individual -- and you wouldn't want to deal with him in real life. He's fixated on his chronic illnesses, and on awaiting a mysterious phone call. In the meantime, he works as a programmer of sorts, with phenomenal speed. All he wants is to be allowed to stay away from the crazy office environment and work quietly from home while he anticipates his call.

Qohen's ambition to hole up in his lair leads him to the attention of Management (Matt Damon, channeling Philip Seymour Hoffman), who gives him a task that has driven other programmers completely insane: proving the zero theorem of the title, which would provide the universe ultimately has a null value. And it is at this point that his life starts to change in unpredictable ways. Teen-genius Bob (Lucas Hedges) and call girl Bainsley (Melanie Thierry) are thrown into his orbit; he also has to deal with his somewhat neurotic boss Joby (David Thewlis), one of Gilliam's stock Quirky Supervisor characters.

The Zero Theorem is scripted by newcomer Pat Rushin but its themes are very much in line with Gilliam's other films. It satirizes a number of aspects of contemporary society: the increasing shift from "real" actions to the virtual, the eradication of personal space and privacy (I would want to work from home too after seeing his office space), the pervasiveness of capitalism and advertising in every aspect of life. None of this is especially novel, but the movie deals with it quite entertainingly. I was especially fond of Tilda Swinton as Qohen's virtual therapist -- not just Swinton's performance, but the resolution of her story, which reminds us of something else about the virtual world and how it can be manipulated.  

While the satire feels skin-deep and occasionally too-obvious throughout much of the movie, a few scenes do carry emotional weight and resonance, grounding the movie without bogging it down in sentimentality -- enhancing the satirical humor, not diluting it. The audience shifts from simply sympathizing with Qohen's appalling environment (enhanced by vivid production design) to sympathizing with him personally, which is why The Zero Theorem succeeds and is memorable. At this time, the movie has no US release date (or even a distributor), but here's hoping you can see it for yourself in 2014.