Venice Film Review: ‘The Zero Theorem’

The Zero Theorem Review

Terry Gilliam's latest bit of dystopian whimsy dissolves into a muddle of unfunny jokes and half-baked ideas.

Here’s a paradox: Everyone admires Terry Gilliam’s weeble-wobble determination to keep making films despite terrible bad luck, and yet the films themselves, even the ones with relatively misfortune-free production histories, are desperately hard to admire. A case in point is “The Zero Theorem,” a sci-fi confection that, at best, momentarily recalls the dystopian whimsy of the director’s best-loved effort, “Brazil,” but ends up dissolving into a muddle of unfunny jokes and half-baked ideas, all served up with that painful, herky-jerky Gilliam rhythm. Helmer’s die-hard fans will rally, but that probably won’t be enough to rescue this from niche obscurity.

Scripted by creative writing professor Pat Rushin (who submitted an early draft to “Project Greenlight”), the story is supposedly set in not-so-distant future, perhaps in Blighty’s London (the pic was actually shot on a stage set in Bucharest). It posits a not-hard-to-extrapolate-from-current-conditions world of clutter and noise, where advertising signage can identify exactly who is walking down the street and there’s a church dedicated to Batman the Redeemer.

Neurotic scientist Qohen Leth (Christoph Waltz), a hairless recluse who lives in a ramshackle, decommissioned chapel, works for the Mancom Corp., a sprawling tech bureaucracy that requires employees to work in office cubicles that somewhat resemble old-school arcade-style videogame consoles, but where, in a Steampunk twist, software is transmitted in vials of liquid. In a none-too-subtle shoutout to “1984,” signs warn that Management is watching everywhere, incarnated in the figure of a character actually called Management (Matt Damon, sporting, like everyone else in the movie, a ridiculous hairpiece). Despite the dystopian setting, David Warren’s production design strews lots of corrugated tubes and DayGlo colors about, making it all feel doubly retro, a nostalgic callback to the kind of pneumatic tube-futurism “Brazil” pioneered in the 1980s.

Qohen, whose name both sounds Jewish-outsidery and plays on the Zen notion “koan,” has been assigned by Mancom to prove the titular Zero Theorem, some kind of contrived nihilistic nonsense that’s never properly explained. He does this by jiggling crude-looking CGI Rubik’s cubes with mathematical symbols in virtual space, something about as visually interesting as watching someone play 3D Tetris for Windows 98. As if that weren’t a portentous enough conceit, he spends his time at home anxiously waiting for a phone call from someone or something that will explain the meaning of his life to him, which (spoiler ahead) never comes through.

At a party, where everyone is listening to music on their cell phones instead of what’s on the sound system (one of the pic’s few amusing gags), Qohen meets Bainsley (fetching but limited Melanie Thierry, “The Princess of Montpensier”), a simpering coquette who later shows up uninvited at Qohen’s house to “shoot trouble” when he gets stuck in his work. A halting sort of romance starts up, albeit one based on “tantric” non-penetrative interfacing. Management’s intellectually precocious son, Bob (Lucas Hedges, “Moonrise Kingdom”), also invites himself over, as do various pizza delivery guys, the obligatory dwarves and David Thewlis as Qohen’s backward-toupee-wearing boss, Joby. Altogether, a bunch of nothing happens, more or less, until the pic runs out of steam and budget.

Those who made it to the end of “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus” or “Tideland” will be amazed to find Gilliam sinking even further here than those low-water marks. The production notes, as if trying to forestall inevitable criticism, make many mentions of the quickness with which the production was executed and the challenges of the low budget, all of which is all too apparent onscreen.

Editor Mick Audsley cuts-and-pastes pieces out of chronological order in a desperate attempt to create some sense of momentum, but there’s no splicing around the look of desperation in Waltz’s browless eyes as he flails noisily in an attempt to sell this shambles as some fable of existential angst. In addition to Damon, the other thesps generously helping Gilliam out with a few days’ shooting in exchange for a visit to beautiful downtown Bucharest include Tilda Swinton as a Scots-accented virtual shrink and Sanjeev Bhaskar, Peter Stormare and Ben Whishaw as a trio of wacky doctors.

Venice Film Review: 'The Zero Theorem'

Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (competing), Sept. 2, 2013. Running time: 106 MIN.

Production

(U.K.-Romania France) A Voltage Pictures presentation of an Asia & Europe/Zanuck Independent production in association with Zephyr Films, Mediapro Pictures, Le Pacte, Wild Side Films. (International sales: Voltage Pictures, Los Angeles.) Produced by Nicolas Chartier, Dean Zanuck. Executive producer, Patrick Newall. Co-producers, Christoph Waltz, Zev Foreman, Chris Curling, Phil Robertson, Andreea Stanculeanu, Jean Labadie, Manuel Chiche.

Crew

Directed by Terry Gilliam. Screenplay, Pat Rushin. Camera (Technicolor, widescreen), Nicola Pecorini; editor, Mick Audsley; music, George Fenton; production designer, David Warren; art director, Adrian Curelea; set decorator, Jille Azis; costume designer, Carlo Poggioli; sound (DTS/SDDS/Dolby Digital), Dragos Stanomir; sound designer, Andre Jacquemin; supervising sound editor, Jacquemin; re-recording mixer, Craig Irving; special effects supervisor, Nick Allder; visual effects supervisors, Fredrik Nord, Felician Lepadatu, Jonah Loop; visual effects, Chimney Pot Chimney Group, DJB, Haymaker, Cinnamon, Lenscare FX, Bold Turtle, Technicolor, Mediapro Magic; stunt coordinator, Ciprian Dumitrascu; line producer, Patricia Poienaru; associate producers, Dominic Rustam, Sebastien Chartier, Mark Bakunas, Harrison Zanuck, Alicia Marotto; assistant director, David Ticotin; casting, Irene Lamb.

With

Christoph Waltz, Melanie Thierry, Matt Damon, Lucas Hedges, Tilda Swinton, David Thewlis, Sanjeev Bhaskar, Peter Stormare, Ben Whishaw. (English dialogue)

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  1. Johnny says:

    This is one of Gilliam’s finest films to date.

  2. O Malakas Malakas says:

    film critics … the vainest job ever …

  3. RobThom says:

    I’d rather watch a Gilliam “failure” then an abrams “success”.

  4. Rups says:

    “determination to keep making films despite terrible bad luck, and yet the films themselves, even the ones with relatively misfortune-free production histories, are desperately hard to admire.” I think you’re thinking of the The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, which was a $ failure and not a failure as an imaginative piece of cinema, and I think your putting that together with Lost in La Mancha, which was a clever way of showing what many filmmakers experience, only you don’t hear about it because they don’t make stories about it. Otherwise, are the failures you are thinking of Time Bandits, Brazil, The Meaning of Life, Life of Brian, Holy Grail, Jabberwocky, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas? All brilliant films, and not a ‘failure’ amongst them. Oh and the comment regarding parties where people listen to their own media players – it’s not an invented gag – iPod parties are popular with the kids now, they dance using their own media devices rather then via a sound system.

  5. Sandra D'Orange says:

    Stick to remakes, sequels and homages made by tarantino that you dudes love to praise.

    Gilliam will always be an outsider. And will therefore by always true cool – NOT like the above!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  6. Neil says:

    Reads like a hatchet job on Gilliam. What is the point of this “review”? Back to the Avengers for you, leave proper cinema to the grown ups.

  7. Jennifer says:

    I am shocked that this poorly-written review has made it into Variety – not even the basic facts of the film’s story are correct. The film is easily one of the most interesting I have seen this year. Gilliam’s films are all about making you think for yourself and they have the charm of revealing something new each time you watch them… I hope I get to see this film many more times. Maybe you should go back to tending your peonies – I think this film was beyond you…

  8. Henrik says:

    I was lucky enough to see the film at the Venice Film Festival and liked it a lot. The patronizing and negative tone of the reviewer is disappointing and sounds like a personal attack on one of the great niche British film makers, not a balanced film review. I was looking out for a conversation about what I felt was an intricate film, not an ode to why we should see Pirates of the Caribbean 6, were everything is “properly explained”. Whatever happened to thinking for yourself? Thinking also helps getting basic facts right. The film I saw was about Cohen the computer programmer, not a neurotic scientist. The film I saw was romantic, deep, and thought provoking.

  9. Sean Pak says:

    I happened to really like both Tideland (severely misunderstood) and Doctor Parnassus, so this review did nothing to make me worry about the film. Really, the only Gilliam movie I haven’t liked was The Brothers Grimm, and that movie was the product of in-fighting between him and the Weinsteins. I tend to enjoy Gilliam as pure Gilliam, which this seems to be.

  10. mikestir says:

    this is a terrible review seemingly based on opinion and your own taste. There is nothing but the hope of failure all over your words. THis is not the movie for you but it may be for me b/c knowing you don’t like it means it’s probably amazing

    • wiles11 says:

      Good lord, dummy, what SHOULD a subjective review be based on if not the opinion and taste of the reviewer?? It’s laughable that we live in a world now where people get pissy when someone doesn’t like something they do. It’s been like this forever, dummy. Get used to it, read reviews AND MOVE ON!

  11. jay says:

    “Qohen, whose name both sounds Jewish-outsidery and plays on the Zen notion “koan,””
    Well, “Qohen leth” seems a pretty obvious reference to “Qoheleth”, aka the book of ecclesisastes…

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