Terry Gilliam is a gifted, ambitious filmmaker who, sadly, may now be more famous for being misunderstood and underfunded than he is for actually making movies. The Zero Theorem isn’t likely to reverse that equation. In this half-squirrely, half-torpid sci-fi adventure, Christoph Waltz, with a shaved head and a face devoid of eyebrows, plays Qohen Leth, a lonely, put-upon programmer who toils away for a megacorporation known as Mancom. Qohen is unraveling emotionally. He’s been waiting for years for a phone call, one that he’s sure will magically change his life. He’s so obsessed that he puts in a request to work from home, so he won’t miss it when it comes. After a number of humiliating medical evaluations and an encounter with Mancom’s big cheese (Matt Damon), his wish is granted — though his immediate boss, scrawny, weedy manager-type Joby (David Thewlis), essentially punishes him with a programming assignment that’s 1,000 percent impossible.
There’s lots more, if you can stand it, including a whiz-kid computer brat who also happens to be the big boss’s son (Lucas Hedges) and a Kewpie-doll vixen who’s been paid off to distract Qohen sexually (Mélanie Thierry). Tilda Swinton shows up, as Dr. Shrink-Rom (pretty much the same pinched, shrill character she did in Snowpiercer), the efficient psychiatrist in charge of assessing, though not improving, Qohen’s mental state. The story goes off in a dozen directions, with very little in the way of satisfying, or even unsatisfying, resolution. And it riffs on the same old
Gilliam-esque themes — we’re all just helpless drones in a mad, inhospitable world — without adding much that’s new. (Gilliam has said that The Zero Theorem is the final installment in a trilogy of dystopian satires, following Brazil and Twelve Monkeys.)
It’s possible, though, that at this point nobody goes to a Terry Gilliam movie for the story, and that’s probably wise. His visual inventiveness is the thing we’re all interested in, and The Zero Theorem does serve up some wild and wonderful images. Qohen’s home — he explains, at one point, that he bought it at fire-sale prices — is a former monastery that looks like a desiccated Italianate mansion, with checkerboard marble floors and grand religious paintings dotting its vast walls. And in our first glimpse of hotshot boss Damon (his character goes by the simple and highly descriptive name “Management”), he’s wearing a zebra-print suit while reclining in a zebra-print chair, an amusing example of trompe l’oeil magic. That’s the sort of bonkers visual drama at which Gilliam excels. Too bad the story tucked around all that production design is such a futuristic drag.