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Terry Gilliam’s ‘The Zero Theorem’: There’s No Going Back to ‘Brazil’

Terry Gilliam's 'The Zero Theorem': There's No Going Back to 'Brazil'

Terry Gilliam’s futuristic “Brazil”  — still vibrant, audacious, mordant, and
wonderfully absurd – is a tough film to measure up to, especially for Terry Gilliam
himself. Nearly 30 years later, his new futuristic fantasy “The Zero Theorem,”
inevitably evokes “Brazil,” a seriously wrong-headed move.  If “Zero Theorem” were fresher, it
might have felt like a continuing exploration of an obsessive interest.  As it is, this listless and shallow fantasy lands
like a pale evocation of Gilliam’s own classic.

Christoph Waltz plays a computer expert named Qohen, with a shaved
head and nerve-frazzled manner, who refers to himself as “We.” (Identity crisis much?) His house, a former church, is a suitably dingy
and eccentric mix of old and new: stained glass windows and Gothic-high
ceilings, piles of dirty dishes, an old-fashioned alarm clock and banks of computer
screens on which we see a swirling galaxy. Outdoors, the stylized landscape feels
like “Blade Runner,” with its rainy, neon-lit, crammed city streets.

The feeling is Orwellian. Matt Damon, who appears in just three
scenes, is Qohan’s employer. He’s the corporate czar of Mancom, a company that can
spy into every nook of every employee’s life — not in a satirical, NSA is
everywhere way, but in the clunky way suggested by the blunt, Orwellian sign that appears in the corporate headquarters, “Mancom is watching,” and
by the fact that Damon’s character is known only as “Management.”

Qohen soon gets permission to work at home on Management’s pet
project:  “crunching entities” to
prove the Zero Theorem, establishing mathematical proof that life is
meaningless. Good luck with that, and with the rest of the movie, which almost
immediately flies apart. Gilliam goes from being slightly derivative (borrowing
from himself) to self-indulgent. Among other dull, meaningless touches, a woman
called Bainsley (Melanie Thierry), who runs a porn website, appears at Qohen’s
door in the guise of a sexy nurse. Eventually, in virtual reality, they romp on
a sunny beach.

  No one demands or even wants rigor from Gilliam’s ever-kinetic
mind. But at his best, in “Brazil,” “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen,”
or “Twelve Monkeys,” the imaginative flights and detours are absorbing
enough to sustain interest. “The Zero Theorem,” with its flat sequences
and repetitiveness, is closer to the recent misfire, “The Imaginarium of
Doctor Parnassus.”  

Waltz is always lively on screen, even when the film around him
becomes leaden and obvious. And some delightful scenes are tucked away here. David
Thewlis adds a realistic, human touch as Qohen’s colleague. Tilda Swinton appears
on Qohen’s computer screen as a company-mandated shrink, who turns out to be not
nearly as pulled together as she should be. Her clumsy name, Dr. Shrink-Rom, is
a clue to the lackluster satire the screenplay lapses into. The film is the first
feature by a fiction writer named Pat Rushin, which may explain why it feels as
if Gilliam has make a movie from a script by an acolyte.  

Like Woody Allen’s otherwise totally different “Magic in the Moonlight,” this
film tackles the mystery of the meaning of life, but “The Zero
Theorem” is an oddly humorless work from one of the shrewdest and most darkly
satirical of the Pythons. Gilliam devotees will want to catch it for the
occasional visual dynamics; watch the way Damon’s chameleon-like suit changes
to match the backdrop in a party scene. Mostly, it makes you want to go back to
“Brazil.” 

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