On the brink of perhaps finally realizing his legendarily delayed production of Don Quixote, the 73-year-old Pythoner, cartoonist and filmmaker Terry Gilliam exhibits a curious score-settling impulse with The Zero Theorem, a movie which seems determined to restage the notoriously overreaching Brazil – which forged the filmmaker’s rep as a meddled-with visionary – in miniature.
In a near-future London that densely bustles with carnivalesque corporate hustle – ads follow pedestrians along sidewalks, “The Church of Batman” solicits converts and “Occupy Wall Street” is a call to go shopping – the hairless drone Qohen Leth (Christoph Waltz) toils miserably for a company run by a blandly autocratic CEO called “Management” (Matt Damon, sporting various background-blending ensembles). Speaking in the perpetual royal “we” and teetering constantly on panic attacks, Qohen begs his gruesomely cheerful supervisor Joby (David Thewlis) to execute his daily “entity-crunching” tasks at home, which happens to be a tomb-like church, stuffed with baroque detritus and co-habited by rats, obtained on the cheap in a fire sale.
But there’s more to Qohen’s desire than fourth-stage agoraphobia. He once missed a phone call promising the answer to the meaning of existence, and he’s convinced the call will come again. So when offered the chance to work from home provided he accepts Management’s task of cracking the Zero Theorem – an impossible mathematical proposition proving everything really adds up to nothing – Qohen locks down at his retrofitted keyboard and logs on.
A parable of one man’s struggle to find purpose in a universe of deliberate, soul-extinguishing pointlessness, The Zero Theorem finds its sharpest edges in the depiction of Qohen’s harrowing struggle to stay focused in a world engineered to distract, frustrate and generally drive one nuts. Each crack at the theorem is announced with a ticking-down deadline attached, and the doors of the church are regularly pounded upon by pizza deliverers, company functionaries, repairmen and even a red-wigged screwball femme fatale (Mélanie Thierry) dressed in a white latex nurse fetish ensemble. Little wonder the poor sod’s hair has fallen out.
At once cluttered and cavernous, hysterical and static, romantic and cynical, The Zero Theorem works most effectively moment by moment and in the details. Waltz’s turn as the suffering Qohen – “Q. No u. H-E-N” is his OCD mantra – is a virtual package of simmering tics, stutters and blocked emotions, the precise opposite of the smoothly articulate manipulators he’s played for Quentin Tarantino. And the set design – enhanced constantly by skewed angles and distorted lenses – is predictably jammed to the rafters with richly revealing marginalia: Even the multiply-locked door to his personal Church of the Misbegotten Soul opens to quick glimpses of a riotously realized dystopia just outside.
But the details, like those constant countdowns to the next Zero Theorem sessions, only distract for so long, and soon, like old Q himself, we find ourselves stepping back and asking the bigger questions. Indeed, if he’s wondering what it’s all for and what it’s all about, so are we. But our questions are likely to be less existential than pragmatic and conceptual, as in, “Just why is Terry Gilliam so determined to take us back to Brazil again?” – replete, one might add, with a virtual-reality paradise, daffy love object, elaborate steampunk aesthetic and vision of labour perversely engineered for maximum meaninglessness? And check this out: Even the poster for this movie is a near ringer for that one.
On one level, the movie’s overriding sense of pervasive déjà vu is thematic and visual: Since working as Monty Python’s resident animator, he has been a master of cut-and-paste, found-art pastiche, and The Zero Theorem can be read as kind of concentrated distillation of an entire century of dystopian movies and fiction, from Metropolis to Blade Runner and Kafka to Vonnegut. On another, the familiarity of it all suggests a weirdly comforting complacency, as though the worst the future might become is something it’s already been.