Take a Drink: for every crazily coiffed and made up actor you recognize
Take a Drink: every time “the call” is mentioned
Take a Drink: whenever somebody mangles Qohen’s name
Take a Drink: for vials
Take a Drink: for mice
Take a Drink: for Virtual Reality
Take a Drink: for callbacks to other Terry Gilliam films
Do a Shot: for Tilda Swinton rapping
By: Henry J. Fromage (Three Beers) –
This week sees a new Terry Gilliam film whose production must have felt like a summer breeze. I mean, it only took five years and three major casting changes, and unlike the first two films in his “Orwellian triptych”, zero corporate meddling.
Although Voltage almost got Zac Efron for the lead
The Zero Theorem follows the reclusive, unbalanced Qohen Leth (Christoph Waltz) as he waits for a phone call that he believes will reveal to him his purpose in life. He works for the, well, Orwellian Mancom, where he’s tasked by The Management (Matt Damon) with completing the Zero Theorem, mathematical proof that life is meaningless. As his sanity frays, a mysterious bombshell, Bainsley (Melanie Laurent,) invites him to partake in a virtual Paradise she created just for him.
Even in his most uneven efforts, Terry Gilliam always succeeds in building a fascinating world, and he does so once again here. He takes the dystopian dreariness of Brazil and adds a grubby, neon, ad-filled aesthetic that feels like an all-too-plausible offshoot of our own, complete with advertisements that follow you as you walk and more “Don’t” signs than you can shake a stick at.
This feels like it could be Pasadena…
This world-building is also where his wry sense of humor comes through, like the ads for the Church of Batman the Redeemer (so… the internet?) and Occupy Mall Street! that crop up here and there. The casting fits this world beautiful as well, from Tilda Swinton’s latest bizarre denture-assisted twin as the face of the psychology software Shrink-Rom to David Thewlis’s David Brent-if-he-were-from-Panem character, to Matt Damon’s quite literal world-fitting collection of suits. Lucas Hedges also is genius casting as Bob, his son and Leth’s youthful manager/pep coach, and while Melanie Laurent doesn’t get a ton to do, she surely nails that bombshell part.
As much as this is a Terry Gilliam joint, though, it’s first-time screenwriter Pat Rushin and Christoph Waltz that give this film its soul. Rushin wrote this script as a response to reading Ecclesiastes, and while its conclusions are more Nietzsche than Christian, the film is full of a deep spiritual longing that Waltz’s amazing turn makes palpable. His Qohen Leth is a bag of nervous tics and mannerisms, always referring to himself using the royal we, a bald-headed portrait of obsession and despair.
As he gets closer to this solution, which would invalidate his own fervent faith in something larger than himself, a higher purpose, he also approaches a kind of peace. The Zero Theorem is about a lot of typical Gilliam-esque preoccupations- the destruction of self under the bootheel of bureaucracy, the overstimulation, hyperconnectivity, and resulting alienation of modern life, the tragedy of the worker bee, but ultimately he, and Rushin, are tackling the biggest question of all… and how we should handle the possibility of there being no answer.
The emotion in this film is powerful, and undeniably affecting, but Gilliam has difficulty focusing it. Leth’s obsession, Bainsley’s actions, Bob’s cheerful nihilism… all don’t quite add up, are too scattershot to congeal into a meaningful whole. Of course, perhaps that’s the point, and this film’s equation adds up to the all and supreme nothingness of Zero. That just makes Waltz’s despairing yet still hopeful character-building supremely depressing, irrespective of the seemingly cathartic ending.
On the technical/writing end of things, the female characters are a bit underwritten and oversexualized, although I think Laurent makes the most of her character. Also, the cinematography is surprisingly ugly, undercutting the imaginative costuming and production design. It’s not just the overreliance on fisheye lenses and dutch angles, but an overall disinterest in framing.
And yeah, less Dutch angles = more.
Where Brazil felt like a call to action, to push against these enslaving institutions, The Zero Theorem, while in the same key, feels like a call to give up that fight. Somebody please give Terry Gilliam a call and make sure he’s okay.
Stopping tilting at this windmill might help.
Last Call: Bainsely talks a little over the credits, but don’t think too hard about that…