Director Terry Gilliam’s madcap visual style vibrates through “The Zero Theorem.” His penchant for outsider characters is there, too. The missing ingredient in Gilliam’s and screenwriter Pat Rushin’s nightmarish vision of the present is a tale that’s strong and coherent enough to keep the spectator on board for this crazy trip.
The new project from Gilliam — a member of the Monty Python comedy troupe whose better work includes “Brazil,” “12 Monkeys” and “The Fisher King” — does contain flashes of muted amusement. Despite all the cartoon imagery and fevered obsession in “The Zero Theorem,” the end product amounts to little.
Christoph Waltz, an Oscar winner for his performance as the righteous bounty hunter in “Django Unchained,” sweats his way through his performance as Qohen Leth. An unhappy employee of an omnipresent corporation called Mancom, Qohen is an “entity cruncher,” manipulating esoteric data that is vastly more complex than numbers.
Qohen lives in a former church-monastery complex. He shares the ruined space with the occasional, discreet rat. Machine-like in his speech and mannerisms, Qohen is always waiting for the phone call that he believes will explain the reason he exists — the meaning of life. Sitting in the gloom of his church at his computer, Qohen grabs his ringing phone in desperation only to quickly hang up in disappointment. “Another day,” he mutters.“Another day.”
A chaotic mix of ghetto and cartoon throbs outside of Qohen’s home. The frantic streets include ubiquitous video billboards that hawk “bargains galore. Up to 100 percent off selected items.”
Qohen reluctantly goes to work each day at Mancom. It’s a ghastly place, he tells his cheerful supervisor, Joby (David Thewlis wearing a prodigious toupee). Qohen pleads with Joby to let him to work from home. That’s a matter for Management, Joby says.
Matt Damon periodically appears as Mancom’s CEO, a cold, bespectacled character named Management. Management believes that Qohen may be able to crunch an especially challenging entity. For that purpose, Management hires the sexy Bainsley to be non-sexual Qohen’s new friend, you might say.
Mélanie Thierry co-stars as Bainsley, a beauty of many guises who inserts herself into Qohen’s anxious existence. In one particularly heated scene, she arrives at his church-home dressed in a hooker-nurse costume, singing a line from the Dixie Cups’ “Chapel of Love.”
Thierry, a French actress not well known in the U.S., and her character, Bainsley, bring the sex, the tease and the heart to “The Zero Theorem.” Hired or not, she’s genuine, Qohen’s shot at a life less repressed and the movie’s chance to rise above oblivion. Despite Thierry’s warming presence, “The Zero Theorem,” produced quickly on a slight budget, devolves into a dead end that asks that old question: Is that all there is?