In the future envisioned by Terry Gilliam’s latest film, The Zero Theorem, everyone dresses like a DayGlo version of Lady Gaga, which makes people hard to distinguish at a glance from the aggressively colorful advertising that constantly assaults them on the streets. (Like Minority Report, the film imagines that ads will eventually be individually targeted; here, they actually follow their targets around, becoming more and more urgent the longer they’re ignored.) Office drones in cubicles pedal frantically, perhaps to generate energy, while using a videogame-style controller to manipulate rotating cubes for reasons unknown. It’s the usual dystopian vision, basically, albeit far more hectic and colorful than the dull, gray world Gilliam created for Brazil three decades ago. If only this imaginative environment were populated with a single compelling character or stimulating idea, rather than serving as busy distraction from the narrative tedium.
Shorn of hair and eyebrows, Christoph Waltz plays Qohen Leth—his first name is pronounced “Cohen,” though his boss, Joby (David Thewlis), insists on calling him Quinn. One of the aforementioned cube jockeys, Qohen constantly refers to himself using the royal “we” and lives only in the hope of receiving a phone call that he believes will explain the meaning of his existence. Petitioning the head of his company, whose actual name is Management (a cameo by Matt Damon), to be allowed to work at home, where he can be sure of not missing this call, Qohen gets drafted to toil away on the “zero theorem,” a reputedly unsolvable mathematical proof that nothing in the universe matters. (This involves more manipulation of cubes on computer screens, though the cubes now have mathematical symbols written on them.) Qohen’s joyless existence gets interrupted, however, when he’s harangued into attending a party and meets sex worker Bainsley (Mélanie Thierry), who seduces him into bouts of virtual nookie on a fake tropical island.
If that doesn’t sound terribly enticing in print, rest assured that it’s rescued visually only by some eclectic production design. Waltz, playing a character who’s closed himself off from everything except existential anxiety (and French prostitutes, apparently), gives a twitchy, deliberately uncharismatic performance, withholding all of the qualities that usually make him a riveting screen presence. Qohen’s relationship with Bainsley, presumably meant to serve the same function as Sam’s obsession with Jill in Brazil, never catches fire, and the zero theorem itself—the plot’s primary motor, such as it is—remains abstract gobbledygook. While the screenplay, written by first-timer Pat Rushin, wasn’t expressly intended for Gilliam, the director has interpreted it in a way that makes the result play like poorly reheated leftovers from his earlier work. It’s the kind of movie that inspires comments like “great art direction!”—praise that’s really a veiled insult.