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The Zero Theorem (2014) Review

Updated on September 23, 2014

It didn’t matter that I was familiar with director Terry Gilliam’s work (12 Monkeys, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Brazil). It didn’t matter that I was in love with his visual inventiveness and his socio-cynical themes. It didn’t matter that I knew when to try to decipher an obscure reference, and when to simply let it wash over me and wait for it to settle in at the next viewing. It didn’t matter that I expected this kind of confusion, or that I adored Christoph Waltz and Tilda Swinton, it didn’t matter that I wanted to love it so badly that I continually forgave it throughout. In the end, I was simply not entertained. How could this happen?

How could such an interesting premise—about an introverted genius working for a company to try to prove that everything adds up to nothing—become such an irresponsible mess? How could such a talented and experienced director let it slip through his fingers? All the scenery, all the symbolism, the furturistic setting, the costumes, the colors, all eroding beneath the weight of a boring narrative.

Perhaps it was a poor script to begin with. The dialogue is certainly wooden, and while at first I thought this a clever way for the storyteller to exploit the inanities of speech, especially as it relates to plot development, this idea doesn’t hold up because the dialogue never shows a hint of anything clever or inventive, never transcends the conventional. It just hammers you with complicated ideas in rushed explanation, and wherever humanity is meant to get a footing, there is a total lack of original or thoughtful prose.

But not only is humanity lacking in the dialogue, it is also lacking in the characters themselves. Qohen (Waltz) has a definite arc, but the entire cast of supporting characters is flat. Management (Damon), his boss, is never anything other than an Ill-Willed Big Brother Corporate Villain; Management’s son, a whiz-kid sent in to help him, is nothing more than a Smart-Ass Boy Genius; Qohen’s computer therapist (Swinton) is simply a Nagging Mother-Figure; and, most tragically, his romantic interest never develops to be more than a Happy Half-Naked Prostitute. The only two female chracters in the entire film are a mother figure and an over-sexualized pixie? Where is the maturity in that? Or is Gilliam excused from fleshing these characters out because they’re meant to be seen from Qohen’s perspective? But how can we know the tragic fallacy of his perspective if it’s the only one we’re given?

Luckily we have an anchor in the gifted Christoph Waltz. Despite his lack of anything substantive to work with, he carries the film on his back with his layered depiction of a repressed genius, a mind trapped in a body-vehicle, an idealist masquerading as a pragmatist, a man whose humanity shines through the cracks, bit by bit. It is an impressive feat to pull off under such creatively oppressive circumstances. Yet it doesn’t save the film.

Because that’s not what the filmmaker wants to focus on. Its final, mind-warping moments betray a beautiful-but-pessimistic outlook on reality. And, granted, that’s a Gilliam thing. He won’t hold your hand, and no, he won’t tie it up with a pretty pink bow, and I appreciate that. But he also lacks something here that, for me, makes the best filmmakers and the best work: Discipline. He has little discipline over his grasp of ideas. They balloon, they do cartwheels, he zips in and out of focus here and there, throttling the audience at breakneck pace, leaving aside moments to reveal real humanity in favor of the next visual or verbal gag. He has nothing coherent to say. He has no patience. And so, subjected to this high-minded vomit of ideas, why should I?

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