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.
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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.