It’s hard not to root for a director like Terry Gilliam. Though often a little rough around the edges, his creations can’t help but showcase the enthusiasm of his warm personality, despite their abstract style and ponderous subject matter. Add to that the almost comical amount of terrible luck Gilliam has faced over his film-making career, and it’s easy to view the coming together of The Zero Theorem as though it was all part of some Mighty-Duckensian underdog story. For the most part it was very much what you’d expect from Gilliam; uncompromising, earnest, wacky, and every bit as warm as one would hope. But the sad truth is, despite its undeniable personality, The Zero Theorem simply doesn’t work all that well as a film. As an art-house piece there are some interesting concepts being discussed in a fun and visually vibrant way, but in the end nothing new is really being said that justifies just how silly and masturbatory The Zero Theorem proves to be.
The Zero Theorem follows Qohen Leth, a hair-free and delusional introvert played by the swagger-reduced variety of Christoph Waltz. A borderline agoraphobic, Leth has convinced himself that he’s waiting for a phone call that will explain the meaning of his existence. Terrified of missing his call (because I guess they only have landlines in this future), he agrees to take on the impossible task of proving the ‘Zero Theorem’ (an algorithm that would definitively prove the meaninglessness of life) so that he may work from home and await his call. As he goes about solving the problem in his abandoned church home (because art), Leth struggles to keep it together and complete his work amongst the many distractions and strange people sent to him by the ominous ‘Management’ (Matt Damon).
It’s probably already obvious this isn’t exactly what you would call a four-quadrant movie, but it’s actually even more out-there then it sounds. The most clearly polarizing thing about The Zero Theorem is its totally over the top style. Gilliam turns the zany up to eleven and gives us a completely illogical, yet wonderfully colourful, vision of a dystopian future. Think 1984 as presented by a collection of Happy Meal toys. The general tone and design of the film are just as alienating as they are creative. While many will no doubt find it charmingly Gilliam, others would be forgiven for thinking it looked like a cheap art department wandered into a second-hand store and grabbed whatever they could find.
While the playful stylistic choices are indeed divisive, the film’s underlying problem is Pat Rushin’s expositive and pompous script. The plot feels extremely contrived and there is a notable absence of subtlety considering the lofty themes driving the movie. The dialogue feels amateurish and, by extension, so does the film. The bigger tragedy is that the weak script signals to the viewer that they needn’t bother trying to understand the strange whimsy The Zero Theorem has to offer and instead just dismiss the whole thing as being bizarre for the sake of it.
The same transference occurs with what is in reality a reasonably strong cast. Simply by virtue of being the mouthpieces of the subpar script, the viewer is led to blame its shortfalls on its characters, or worse still, the actors themselves. Waltz in particular is in danger of having his contribution diminished by the material. The melancholy oddball he plays is a far cry from his usual charismatic self, but Waltz is surprisingly confident in Leth’s skin and elevates a role that could succumb to ridiculousness under a lesser actor. Even so, you just can’t take him seriously when the movie so often dips into the quality of an afterschool pre-teen genre series.
The Zero Theorem is a film that should hinge on its philosophical merit. The inherent paradox of a man waiting to be handed a reason for being, while simultaneously trying to prove life is meaningless, is a brilliant conceit for this kind of flick. But despite how clever the ideas, the results never allow you to forgive the abrasive methodology used to explore them. Musings aside, there just isn’t anything new or profound it has to contribute, which is unforgivable when clarity of plot and character are twisted however needed for the film to talk philosophy.
That being said, there will absolutely be those who will find the unconventional approach admirable enough that they’ll forgive its deceptive simplicity and revel in deconstructing its motifs. But in truth it’s difficult to recommend The Zero Theorem on those qualities, rather its saving grace is the whimsy and enthusiasm Gilliam injects into the project. Silly as it all is, I still found myself smiling at his child-like imagination and positive message. This is a movie for those who like to be challenged and can sift through what doesn’t work to carve out their own meaning from the material. It’s a movie for those who would rather be engaged in a discussion than be given a lesson. Or else it’s a movie for those like me who just can’t help but show their love for the old Python.
THE REEL SCORE: 6/10