The Zero Theorem runs in a counter-parallel universe to Terry Gilliam’s masterwork, Brazil, a film he’s dedicated a career to remaking. The setting looks the same. The church that computer genius Qohen Leth (Christoph Waltz) operates out of could be adjacent to the dank, bureaucratic hell-hole in which Brazil’s Jonathan Pryce punches a clock at. The key difference: where the unassuming Pryce turns to on-the-job distractions for a mental vacation, work is the devoted Qohen’s only means of escape.
When it comes to networking, the socially inept Qohen is the last to arrive at the party and the first to be shoved out a door. But Qohen’s sudden dispossession turns out to be a blessing in disguise as he’s put face-to-face with the Manager (Matt Damon), a white-haired plutocrat whose chameleon-like attire helps him blend perfectly with the decor. Not unlike Robert De Niro’s brief stint in Brazil, Gilliam once again relies on big-name star power (Peter Stormare, Tilda Swinton, Ben Wishaw) to round out several of the minor roles (and hopefully add marquee value).
Qohen is assigned the task of solving the titular hypothesis, an equation that by its very nature — everything adds up to nothing — makes it impossible to prove. To unlock the puzzle, Qohen sits before his computer playing what appears to be a video-game version of “fit the Jenga piece in the mausoleum wall.”
The film’s biggest shortcomings land squarely in the comedy and romance departments. The few laughs on display are purely conceptual. Qohen accidentally drops the phone when a call explaining the meaning of existence comes in and spends the rest of his days waiting for a callback. The Manager’s son (Wes Anderson favorite, Lucas Hedges) insists on calling everyone “Bob” because remembering names is a waste of brain cells. More often than not, as in the case of Swinton’s bit as a Rom Shrink, the gags drown in a sea of screenwriter Pat Rushin’s techno double-talk.
Pryce’s amorous ideal is complexly drawn, a terrorist investigating her husband’s disappearance who does double-duty as his fantasy angel. Qohen hooks up with Bainsley (Mélanie Thierry), a smattery fetish model who draws the line at prostitution (“I don’t do intercourse”). Even if there is palpable chemistry between Bainsley and Qoheh, there’s nothing underneath to give the film the exotic charge of its predecessor.
It’s a commanding performance by center-of-attention Waltz — he also co-produced — but in the service of what? At 107 minutes, Rushin states his dystopian intentions early on and eats up the remaining screen time regurgitating his apocalyptic fantasies, with a few capricious Coppertone commercials thrown in for good measure.
One critic referred to the film as “underfunded.” Hallelujah! In this case, a bigger budget would only have led to larger-scale calamity. Ten years down the road, not even a three-disc Criterion set of the restored director’s cut will inform what isn’t there. Lovely to look at — this deserves a big-screen visit to the Digital Gym where it opens September 19 — I suggest you come for Waltz and the production design and take a mental vacation of your own during Rushin’s jumbled rhetorical mumbo jumbo.