The Zero Theorem casts Christoph Waltz as Qohen Leth, an egghead data processor who is given a mission to make order out of chaos. This being a production by Terry Gilliam – the rambling mad uncle of British cinema – Qohen Leth is clearly screwed from the outset. The Zero Theorem is a sagging bag of half-cooked ideas, a dystopian thriller with runaway dysentery, a film that wears its metaphorical trousers around its metaphorical ankles. In fits and starts, I quite enjoyed it.
The plot (by Pat Rushin) blunders merrily between the trite and the tangled as Qohan holes up in his big old house, tapping maniacally at his keyboard to make the numbers add up. But the theorem is unprovable, and the walls are closing in, and the sense of airless claustrophobia is partly a result of budgetary constraints and partly the director’s own junk-shop aesthetic. Here is a man who cannot see a movie interior without festooning it with lightbulbs and candles, religious artefacts and antique telephones.
On the few occasions when Qohan is permitted outside (either physically or virtually), the clutter goes with him. The director rifles through his contacts book and calls in some favours to find room for Tilda Swinton (as a rapping psychiatrist), Ben Whishaw (corporate factotum) and Mélanie Thierry (sexy spy). In the meantime, Matt Damon crops up fitfully as the malign “management”, sporting a succession of camouflage suits that make him blend into the curtains. Even Damon is almost lost amid the rummage sale of The Zero Theorem.
For all that, the film has a ragged charm, a Tiggerish bounce, and a certain sweet melancholy that bubbles up near the end. It is a wilfully iconoclastic film from a wilfully iconoclastic man. And it shows, for better or worse, that Gilliam is still in the game and eyeing the prize, despite his spectacularly ill-starred recent career.
At the age of 72, Gilliam obviously retains an enormous capacity for hope. In this respect, he’s a little like Qohan, who sits waiting for a phone call that will definitively explain the meaning of life. Of course, there’s no phone call; it’s all a delusion. Yet still he sits, because there’s hope in the waiting and what else is the point?