|Waltz and Thierry add it up in The Zero Theorem.|
«« The Zero Theorem. Written by Pat Rushin. Directed by Terry Gilliam. At selected theaters.
Full disclosure: I've never been much of a fan of Terry Gilliam's work as a director. Not his gonzo animations for Monty Python—those were terrific. I'm speaking of features like Brazil, Twelve Monkeys, his Baron Munchausen movie, which overflowed with the kind of visual flair schoolboy critics take for great profundity, but were actually pretty vacuous at their cores.
I therefore give Gilliam
some backhanded credit for the premise of his latest. For The Zero Theorem is literally a story with a vacuum at its core, about
a man in search of proof that the universe is governed by nothing but a
self-cancelling equation. In a year with movies about Steven Hawking (The Theory of Everything) and Alan
Turing (The Imitation Game), this is
another movie about math.
It's the very near future, where London is a ringing, buzzing mess of floating animated billboards and constant surveillance. Qohen Leth (Christoph Waltz) is some kind of cryptologist-prole whose job is to crack mathematical puzzles for a conglomerate controlled by a boss known only as "Management" (Matt Damon). Not fulfilled in his work "crunching entities", he aspires to be allowed to telecommute from home, where he can be present to receive a particularly important phone call (writer Pat Rushin apparently forgot that you don't need to be home to get a call anymore, though there are cell phones everywhere in the movie). Management finally relents, but on one condition: Qohen must attempt to crack a virtually insoluble problem called "the Zero Theorem", proving that the Universe is a purposeless accident.
There are some fun ideas in the movie. Apparently, there will be soon be a "Church of Batman" for us to seek redemption in. There will also be an "Occupy Wall Street" department store. Mathematical innovation in the future is not an exercise in broad theorizing, but literally exercise: employees solve teeny, tiny pieces of complex puzzles by pedaling stationary bikes. As he embarks on his new project Qohen is gifted with a call girl companion (Mélanie Thierry) who seems determined to rouse him from his metaphysical funk by any means necessary, including some picturesque cock- and brain-teasing.
But the fun is thin on the ground, and Qohen (played by Waltz with a spiritual constipation that is truly Teutonic) never becomes more than a mope. The motives of Management are muddled, with Gilliam apparently unable to afford Matt Damon's services for more than couple days of shooting. The motives of Thierry's character—the stereotypical "hooker with a heart of gold" who falls in love with her john—are worse than muddled. Tell me again: how does sending in a beautiful woman in a latex nurses' uniform help a straight man concentrate on the evening's problem set?
Sometimes it seems like Gilliam wants to get at something. Rushin's script occasionally sounds like a parodic answer to The Matrix, with Qohen as "the One" elected to challenge the evil mainframe. Other times, Gilliam seems inclined to say something about religion. But all these gestures seem abortive, dropped as if from the sheer exhaustion of crafting a consistent theme.
"Crunching entities" turns out to be pretty dreary work.
© 2014 Nicholas Nicastro