As a long-time fan of Terry Gilliam’s films, it’s been a while since one of them really resonated with me. It’s not that the films he’s directed haven’t been good, but they haven’t quite lived up to the early work with Monty Python or films like the stone-cold classic Brazil, The Fisher King or 12 Monkeys. The productions of his films are legendary for the mishaps that befall them – The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, the ill-fated production of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote (chronicled quite beautifully in Fulton & Pepe‘s Lost in La Mancha) and The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus which was derailed by the death of Heath Ledger come quickly to mind. Fortunate for us all, The Zero Theorem hits familiar Gilliam themes and is a return to form of an old master.
As we found out in my interview with screenwriter Pat Rushin, Gilliam referred to this film as Brazil II on set, so if know anything about Brazil, it should give you a good idea of the look, feel and themes of The Zero Theorem. Taking place in a yearless time in the future, Qohen Leth (two-time Oscar-winner Christoph Waltz) is a number cruncher for the company Mancom and a damn good one. The thing is he hates it. He tries however he can to get out of working in the office as he has, over the years, become an agorophobe, withdrawing from society as it gets louder in noise and tone.
In the grip of an existential crisis, the one thing that keeps him going is a phone call he has been expecting for years. How could a phone call keep him going, you ask? Well, Qohen expects that this phone call will somehow explain to him why it all matters, what the meaning of his existence actually is. Racked with worry he might miss this call, all he wants is to be available should it come. So when a request to work from home is surprisingly granted by his boss Mr. Joby (the spot-on David Thewlis) and the Big Brother-like boss Management (an almost unrecognizable Matt Damon), there’s a catch. He is to prove the titular Zero Theorem (or Zip-T as it is commonly known) where 0=100%, or everything is nothing.
The task set forth for Qohen matches his disposition, glum and depressive which is in direct contrast with the bulk of the people surrounding him as well as the pastel, candy-colored landscape which looks like a dream playground fit for frolicking in rather than hiding from. Ensconced in his converted monastery, Leth dives headlong into the project unaware of what lies ahead. A longtime recluse, Qohen finds the company of a woman named Bainsley (the incredibly magnetic Mélanie Thierry) who momentarily cracks his exterior and alters his outlook. When he finds out that she is a call girl, paid to be in his company, things change thus hurtling him back into the abyss in which he had been. Does he receive his call? Is he able to reconcile his existence with any sort of meaning? These are questions you’ll have to find out for yourself.
Having had access to the script well in advance of having seen the film, I built the film in my head waiting to see its construction on the screen. Knowing Gilliam‘s penchant for visuals, I was hopeful that they would live up to my expectations. It’s easy to say that the vision of Gilliam and production designer David Warren, art director Adrian Curelea, set decorators Jille Azis and Gina Stancu as well as costume designer Carlo Poggoli soared way over said expectations. The photographic scheme of DP Nicola Pecorini‘s added quite a bit to Qohen’s paranoia about outside forces and his standing in society. I loved the switch of points of view between our perspective, the voyeuristic shaky handheld camera and the surveillance footage.Gilliam‘s direction and collaboration with the design team really elevated what is one of the best scripts I’ve ever read to even greater heights. Couple that with the incredible cast, including the wonderful little cameos of folks like Tilda Swinton, whose ubiquity these days pleases me to no end, as well as Robin Williams‘ which you have to be quite observant to notice, really add up to an incredible cinematic experience.
I think it’s fair to say that not too many films tackle the existential question, even though it is perhaps the most basic question we can ask – why the hell are we here and what is our purpose? If everything really does add up to nothing as The Zero Theorem is supposed to prove, then why do we do anything if it’s all for naught? I guess most people would rather go see giant transforming robots blowing tons of shit up than face a question as big and murky as that. It’s certainly an easier way to live. And while this isn’t exactly the most optimistic film out there, I think there is something in it for everyone who bothers to look for it.
The Zero Theorem opens today in select theatres, expanding over the next couple of weeks, and is worth paying $10 or $12 to see. Sneak your own candy and perhaps a couple of cans of Hamm’s in with you and all should be right as rain.
Stay tuned for Liz’s coverage of the New York press conference from yesterday. No doubt there will be some nuggets of interest in there.