Saturday, September 20, 2014


My mind began to wander as Zero Theorem was reaching its conclusion. The hero was running around smashing things, realizing that his life's work had been a sham, but I couldn't have cared less.

But hadn't I enjoyed it up until then? Hadn't Christoph Waltz as Qohen Leth been sufficiently alienated and brooding, a surefire heir to whatever title Max Von Sydow once held?  And hadn't the visuals been fascinating, as they usually are in movies directed by Terry Gilliam? Yes, yes, and yes.

Sometimes, though, one can enjoys parts of a movie without really enjoying the movie. At its best moments, Zero Theorem is about how technology is destroying our souls, and taking a toll on our society that may never be repaid. Those moments are rare for two reasons: the movie is bursting at the seams with Gilliam's usual grungy futuristic imagery, to the point of oversaturation, and the characters, although well-acted by a strong cast, are simply too stock.

From the start we're stranded in Gilliam's world with no way out.  We see Qohen, a working stiff on his way to a strange job where he robotically crunches data for some mysterious  firm. As he walks down the street, an advertisement projected on a wall seems to follow him, talking to him, beseeching him to buy some product. Gradually, we're introduced to his daily rituals, which are mind-numbingly dull, but perhaps no worse than what you and I do on a daily basis.

We meet his co-workers, all grinning idiots who seem frightened of management; we see walls of computers and screens and numbers and data,  all bloated and meaningless. The city is a combination of medieval architecture and modern advertising. It's neither the current era or the future. The city looks like the futuristic LA of Blade Runner,  but without the edge of danger.  People still wear sneakers and eat pizza, teenagers are still annoying, and Qohen still speaks on an old fashioned phone and uses heavy locks and chains to secure the doors of his home, which seems to be as large as a cathedral. Perhaps this was Gilliam's way of saying that for all of our technological advances, we're still frightened little drones with primitive, un-evolving inner lives.  Could be, yes, I'd agree.

And finally, we meet David Thewlis as Joby, Qohen's boss.   He's the sort of sniveling British character that we know from other Gilliam movies, even from his old days on Monty Python's Flying Circus - I kept thinking how much Thewlis reminded me of Michael Palin - and it seems the film is moving into a comical direction.  Thewlis, cocky one moment and frightened the next, gave me several moments of smile producing recognition.

But unfortunately, everyone in the movie is presented not as a person but as an object of ridicule. When Qohen, who fears he is  dying, seeks the advice of a trio of doctors, the doctors all have funny haircuts or wear turbans or speak in a strange manner.  It's as if Gilliam doesn't trust that the characters are interesting, and thinks he has to dress them up goofily before he can put them onscreen.  In a way, it becomes a herky-jerky slide show of Gilliam's other movies. You watch and think, This guy could be in Brazil, or that guy could be in Time Bandits.  Gilliam may have something against technology, but he still thinks a dwarf makes a pretty good sight gag. Like an aging uncle who still thinks a fake nose and glasses is the epitome of comedy, Gilliam will still trot out a little person for a laugh.

Of course, it feels like a kind of sacrilege to pick on Gilliam, for much of Zero Theorem is worth watching, it's well-made, and does achieve moments of genuine beauty. The problem is that what horrifies Gilliam doesn't seem all that bad. We're drowning in a sea of advertising and technology? Big whoop.

The movie's story is barely worth recounting. Qorem gets to work at home, working on a project that will somehow show him the meaning of life.  He's bothered constantly by intruders, and never gets his work done. A young woman he meets at an office party (Melanie Thierry) introduces him to a virtual sex game. She turns out to be a hired escort paid by management to distract him. Or something like that.  But she professes to really love him. Does she really?

Gilliam creates some exquisite scenes between Waltz and Thierry - she's the real joy of the movie, a strange hybrid of Uma Thurman and Lauren Hutton -  and the sundrenched paradise they play in during their virtual playtime is breathtaking. But so much of the movie feels not only bland, but criminally hokey, such as Thewlis' inability to remember Qohen's name, or the snotty young computer wiz played by Lucas Hedge.  There's a tired quality here - even at his worst, Gilliam's movies always have the energy of a swashbuckling child. This one feels heavy, like it's moving on lead legs.

At times, though, the movie threatens to turn great. I liked how Thewlis' character admitted to having no friends, and how he seemed to crave Qohen's company, and Thierry has enough old-fashioned star power to light up an entire futuristic neighborhood. But the occasional great moments are quickly squashed by another round of visuals, until Zero Theorem starts to feel less like a movie and more like one of the annoying advertisements of which Gilliam is so critical.

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