The Zero Theorem

UK Release Date 14th March 2014
Director Terry Gilliam
Starring Christoph Waltz
Runtime 107 Minutes
Certificate 15
Reviewer Si
Reviewed 24th March 2014

Terry Gilliam’s work is always worth watching but like the Pythons he helped to form, sometimes you do kind of wonder why you’re watching. His undisputed masterpiece, Twelve Monkeys, is getting on for twenty years old now and things since have been interesting but patchy (though we still have a lot of time for the unfairly maligned Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas), though the long in gestation promise of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is something we’re very much looking forward to. If it ever gets made. For his latest, Gilliam has returned to ground he is familiar with from Brazil back in 1985.

The Zero Theorem finds Christoph Waltz’s Qohen Leth (pronounced Cohen) trudging in to work as some kind of computer operator for the ubiquitous Mancom company. As he dolefully leaves his huge derelict church abode, semi-futuristic cars block his road crossing and glitchy advertisements follow him along buildings, constantly addressing him as ‘madam’. Work comprises of what looks like the worst part of the modern London Trocadero - day-glow colours abound as Qohen and his colleagues sit back and peddle vigorously as they frantically operate games console style controllers, whizzing graphics around the screen to solve mathematical problems and apparently consequently filling small phials with liquid. Qohen suffers from, amongst a hilariously long list, acute agoraphobia and repeatedly seeks home work sign off from the Management. This is turned down but a chance encounter at what is starting to look like an eerily prescient works party (Qohen is badgered into going by David Thewlis’s gobby supervisor Joby) with Management himself (a superbly attired Matt Damon) puts him on the radar and he is soon assigned the Zero Theorem project - a guaranteed burnout according to Joby. Set up at home, things start to spin out of his control when a combination of a beautiful hooker, a distinctly odd therapy AI programme and Management’s teenage son all conspire to send his paranoid life out of orbit.

There is a lot in Gilliam’s latest that will come across as very familiar to anyone who has watched his loose 1984 adaptation Brazil and quite a lot that has been magpied from a variety of other movies (the exterior shots come across as some kind of colourful cross between Blade Runner and Idiocracy) but as ever with Gilliam, there is a vibrant imagination under all of it. In fact, this is probably his most gleefully ridiculous movie to date - at numerous times you kind of get the impression he is throwing everything at the screen in the hope that something will fire. Much of it does but there is also a fair amount that leave you wondering if you’re watching the product of an over-bright kid hopped up on too much Sunny D. Or whatever kids are drinking too much of these days.

Waltz has a great time as the piece’s hero. Or anti-hero. Or non-hero. Depending on how you view Qohen’s constant insistence of referring to himself as ‘we’ when he should be using ‘I’ and his utterly fragile personality. It’s a great performance but I can easily imagine how he could come across as very irritating if you get off on the wrong foot with him. David Thewlis reprises any number of his previous mouthy personalities but nobody does it better than him and he throws everything into his hyperactive supervisor, stuck in a dead-end job supervising people doing nothing of any consequence. Mélanie Thierry is stunning as the new cause of most of Qohen’s current raft of issues arriving in the form of hooker / stripper / internet sensation Bainsley. First glimpsed at the wretched party Qohen attends, she is next seen creaking her way into his apartment in full PVC nurse regalia. Presumably sent by Management to try and keep Qohen on the straight and narrow whilst he searches for the Zero Theorem, she soon finds more in the recluse, leading to all kinds of bother. Thierry’s wonderful performance once Bainsley has fallen for Qohen makes me think she will definitely be one to watch in the very near future. Lucas Hedges (currently also in cinemas with the slightly more down to earth but probably no more realistic Labour Day) is interesting as the largely ignored by his dad Bob, forever bouncing around and attempting to bring Qohen out of his shell but never quite hitting that irritating teen stereotype role.

The Zero Theorem is a difficult film to rate because your take on it will probably be contingent on two things. 1 - if you’re willing to face Gilliam’s hyperactive ride without taking it all too seriously and 2 - whether Waltz’s Qohen drives you mad from the first minute you meet him. If you’re good with both those things though, there is a lot to enjoy here. Damon’s wardrobe is hilarious and the works party will probably remind you a little too much of parties you’ve been at - it can’t be long before these sorts of occasions are entirely dominated by stooped faces uplight by that familiar iPad glow. And then of course there is the continuing deluge of ideas flung at you. If more than a couple stick, I’d say your time has been well spent. The actual Zero Theorem is of course largely the white elephant its name suggests but the world that requires its impossible solution is getting more believable by the day. In many ways his latest movie is pretty much just an excuse for Gilliam to rampage through a set of teenage fantasies, near future gags, slapstick, half baked philosophical ponderings and just about anything else he can get his hands on. Stuffed with ideas, easy on the eye and never dull, The Zero Theorem is perhaps too scatter-shot and at times overfamiliar to be impressive but given the above, I’d say it’s worth a punt. Even if you can’t make zero equal 100%.

Check out the trailer here.

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