×

Venice Film Review: ‘The Zero Theorem’

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

With:

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

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)

More Film

  • Themba Ntuli and Ashley Lazarus

    Ashley Lazarus, Director of Apartheid-Era Cult Classic, Returns to Screen

    DURBAN–Director Ashley Lazarus, whose film about the interracial friendship between two young boys during the apartheid era became a South African cult classic in the 1970s, is set to return to the big screen with a film that builds on his life-long passion for early-childhood education. “Teacher Wanted” is the inspirational story of a teacher [...]

  • Channing Tatum

    Channing Tatum's Free Association Partners With Atwater Capital for Film Development Fund

    Free Association, a production company led by Channing Tatum, Peter Kiernan and Reid Carolin, has entered into a film development fund with Atwater Capital. The four-year $2 million revolving fund stipulates that Atwater will finance a minimum of five films with Free Association. Michael Parets, VP of production, will oversee the deal. Free Association will [...]

  • Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

    Box Office: Tarantino's 'Once Upon a Time in Hollywood' Takes on 'Lion King'

    Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth, Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt’s characters in Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” will have to take on much more than a changing showbiz landscape. This weekend, the washed-up actor and his majordomo are battling Disney’s juggernaut “The Lion King” at the domestic box office. Tarantino’s R-rated auteur [...]

  • Margot Robbie Once Upon a Time

    Margot Robbie Says 'Barbie' Movie Will Put 'Positivity' Into the World

    Over the last 10 years, Margot Robbie has stepped into the skates of Tonya Harding, taken up the mantle of Harley Quinn and, next up, she’s playing the world’s most famous doll, Barbie. The live-action film is due out in 2020 and set to be written by Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach, while Robbie serves [...]

  • 2018 NALIP Gala

    National Association of Latino Independent Producers Celebrates Its 20th Anniversary

    Ben Lopez has seen the future of the entertainment industry, and says it is the Latinx community. “In the next 20 years, we’re going to be prioritized — because not only will we have the numbers demographic-wise, we’ll have the spending power,” says Lopez, the executive director of the National Assn. of Latino Independent Producers, [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content