Sunday, September 21, 2014

In Theaters/On VOD: THE ZERO THEOREM (2014)

(UK/Romania/France - 2014)

Directed by Terry Gilliam. Written by Pat Rushin and Terry Gilliam. Cast: Christoph Waltz, David Thewlis, Melanie Thierry, Lucas Hedges, Matt Damon, Tilda Swinton, Ben Whishaw, Peter Stormare, Emil Hostina, Pavlic Nemes, Dana Rogoz. (R, 106 mins)

A Terry Gilliam film for those who have never seen a Terry Gilliam film, THE ZERO THEOREM is the sort of dystopian sci-fi nightmare that can't help but feel like reheated leftovers coming from the guy who gave us the 1985 masterpiece BRAZIL. For longtime Gilliam devotees who have followed the auteur's post-Monty Python work for the last 35 or so years, THE ZERO THEOREM will have the distinct feeling of a classic rock act releasing a "give 'em what they want" record after several years away. Known as much for his groundbreaking vision as for the obstacles that have stood in his way over the years--battling Universal execs over BRAZIL, the collapse of his THE MAN WHO KILLED DON QUIXOTE chronicled in Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe's documentary LOST IN LA MANCHA (2002), clashing with Harvey Weinstein over THE BROTHERS GRIMM (2005), and restructuring THE IMAGINARIUM OF DOCTOR PARNASSUS (2009) when Heath Ledger died a third of the way into filming--the independently-financed THE ZERO THEOREM is a rare example of Gilliam being able to make exactly the film he wanted to make, with minimal interference. That's all the more reason that the underwhelming result is a bit on the disappointing side. With a budget reportedly in the vicinity of just $10 million--shoestring by today's standards--Gilliam has miraculously fashioned an arresting visual experience. But when a sci-fi film is released in 2014 and much of the plot hinges on virtual reality, it's a pretty safe bet you're working from a script that's been kicking around for a while. University of Central Florida English prof and screenwriting neophyte Pat Rushin gave his ZERO THEOREM script to producer Richard Zanuck way back in 2004. It didn't end up in Gilliam's hands until 2009 and it's hard telling just how much of Rushin's original script remains (Gilliam is also credited with "additional dialogues"). But even if you factor out the dated subject of virtual reality, Gilliam just doesn't seem like he's bringing his A-game to this one.

That's not to say it's a bad movie, but Gilliam just has nothing significant to say. THE ZERO THEOREM is packed with visual and thematic callbacks to earlier Gilliam films (most notably BRAZIL, 1991's THE FISHER KING and 1995's 12 MONKEYS, and eagle-eyed viewers will spot a quick cameo by Gilliam's late FISHER KING star Robin Williams), but not in a way that advances the film or Gilliam as an artist. Instead, it's done in a way that makes what was once innovative and groundbreaking seem uninspired and stale. In a future that's equal parts BRAZIL, BLADE RUNNER and the Martian red-light district in Paul Verhoeven's TOTAL RECALL, ManCom worker drone/"entity cruncher" Qohan Leth (Christoph Waltz) lives in the ruins of a fire-ravaged church that was abandoned by a sect of monks who took a vow of silence (in one of the film's few inspired moments, Leth quips that "No one broke the silence to yell 'Fire!'"). Leth works as a mathematician of sorts at a Kafka-esque workspace that looks like a video game console. He pleads for a work-at-home assignment because he's waiting for a special phone call--a phone call he's been waiting on for years--and doesn't want to miss it. He gets his wish, and is assigned by his jokey ("I'm a few raisins short of a full scoop!") but condescending supervisor Joby (David Thewlis) to work on finding "The Zero Theorem," a guaranteed dead-end of an equation that manages to defeat anyone who attempts to solve it. Leth slowly loses his mind as he obsessively tries and fails to conquer the Zero Theorem, all while dealing with the impossibly demanding upload schedule, represented by calls from a judgmental-sounding automated computer voice. Sensing that Leth is stressed out, Joby has Bainsley (Melanie Thierry) visit him. Leth once met Bainsley at a party of Joby's that he reluctantly attended, and he's crushed when he eventually learns she's a sex worker who was paid to see him. He also gets intrusive visits from ManCom intern Bob (Lucas Hedges), the 15-year-old son of ManCom manager Management (Matt Damon).

That Damon's cold, unfeeling manager character is actually named "Management" is a pretty solid indicator of just how heavy-handed the dark-humored elements of THE ZERO THEOREM can be. Tilda Swinton also turns up, still sporting her SNOWPIERCER teeth, as Leth's online therapist, named "Dr. Shrink-ROM." Really? Subtlety is not the name of Gilliam's game here. The dated concepts, the Gilliam's Greatest Hits selections (at least three supporting characters are almost identical variants of those seen in BRAZIL), and the ham-fisted ways he demonstrates the dehumanized nature of Leth's corporate-saturated world that's a garish interpretation of our own conspire to present a Terry Gilliam that may have reached that late-period Stanley Kubrick or present-day George Romero/Terrence Malick tipping point where an influential, trail-blazing genius is getting a little older and is starting to come off like a guy who doesn't seem to get out much.

While it has a sizable number of issues on the writing front, THE ZERO THEOREM does score in a strictly visual sense. The decaying church that Leth calls home is marvel of production design, and a ghoulish, hairless Waltz, looking like a futuristic Nosferatu, has never been creepier. Waltz plays Leth as aggressively unlikable as possible and it's a challenge for the actor to keep the audience focused on a thoroughly irritating and unappealing character who generates little sympathy. Leth speaks in plurals, constantly referring to himself as "we" and "us," and he's always testing the patience of those around him with his extreme OCD ways. It's a tough performance, and even though the endless tics and mannerisms bring to mind Brad Pitt's Jeffrey Goines in 12 MONKEYS, the great Waltz is up to the task, which helps as it's largely The Christoph Waltz Show throughout. The actors and the production design team persevere through a bit of a misfire that has a difficult time overcoming its "been there, done that" vibe. Gilliam is past the point of proving himself, and by no means is THE ZERO THEOREM an exercise in futility like, say, a new Dario Argento film. At 73, Gilliam has every right to coast into his emeritus years by raiding his back catalog if that's what he wants to do, but I don't think it's demanding too much to expect something a little more substantive from someone of his stature. But then, it's not like Gilliam's been on a roll lately: PARNASSUS was his first good film since 1998's FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS, with 2005 giving us the Gilliam career-nadir double-shot of THE BROTHERS GRIMM and TIDELAND. PARNASSUS was a welcome return to the filmmaker's fun, ADVENTURES OF BARON MUNCHAUSEN side and a step in the right direction. Five years later with THE ZERO THEOREM, and Gilliam is simply running in place.

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