Not for the first time Terry Gilliam has set out to answer the question “What if Franz Kafka did ALL the drugs?”. The Zero Theorem doesn’t make any sense, and the challenge is to figure out if Gilliam meant it to feel that way or just couldn’t help himself. When it was over, I turned around to John and said “Should we have gone to Need for Speed after all?” “That might have been good or just a pile of crap, but it would have been just another movie. This…."
Well, yes. I’ve seen most of Gilliam’s movies, with the notable exception of The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (I don’t count not seeing Tideland, because nobody saw Tideland). Pretty much, they’re all great looking messes. Gilliam excels at thrown together grotesquerie, every scene an exciting, busy heap of distractions, but what works for framing a scene doesn’t work building a story. Sometimes he gets good enough actors and enough pushback from everyone else that the film comes together despite him; then you get something like Brazil, or Time Bandits, or Twelve Monkeys: all unmistakably Gilliam and yet with a spine running through them which keeps you trying to follow the story rather than just enjoying the scenery. Or it can all go magnificently pear-shaped and you get The Adventures of Baron von Munchausen, which has some of the most beautiful scenes Gilliam or anyone else has ever done, none of which have anything to do with anything else happening in the movie.
Zero Theorem is off towards the messy end of things; scene after scene of trademark intricacy, all adding up to - well it’s hard to know. Easily the weirdest decision in the movie was to cast the hyper articulate and benignly sinister Christoph Waltz as the inarticulate, well-meaning protagonist. Of course Waltz is a brilliant pro and nails it, but that just means the centre of the movie is a plausibly unlikeable nutcase surrounded by grotesques, caricatures and one Manic Pixie Dream Girl. There’s no-one to root for, and while you’re not caring what happens to them, you’re not understanding why it’s happening.
Leth is an obsessional shut-in waiting for a phone call which he’s convinced will explain everything. He works for Man-Com, a vast technical conglomerate which looks like Google re-imagined by BF Skinner on Adderall; employees sit at tiny workstations working consoles like Bop-Its while pedalling frantically for no apparent reason. Management takes him away from all that and lets him work from home at solving the Zero Theorem, which seems to be a mathematical proof that everything adds up to nothing. Wackiness ensues, but hell if I could figure out whether Leth ever solved the Theorem, or got his phone call or figured out the secret of everything. After a while you’re not watching it to see what happens next, but to see what’s happening now; what strange piece of re-imagined technology is about to show up and confuse us even further?
It’s not a great Gilliam film. Almost everything in it was done better in Brazil; the off-kilter dystopia, the protagonist looking for an escape in his imagination, the girl who might be just a figment of that imagination, the final refuge in dreams, the parade of terrible distractions amid awful people - it’s all there in Brazil, and in a film which hangs together better. But even a bad Gilliam film is doing things you won’t see anywhere else; if you’ve seen any of his other stuff and it’s spoken to you at all, Zero Theorem will scratch an itch that nothing else would.