Wednesday, 30 April 2014

The Zero Theorem (2013)

Watch Brazil instead

In a dystopia not too far away in space or time, a mentally unwell savant toils as a talented, high‑value drone for an all-encompassing, mestastatic megacorporation. He just wants to work from home so that he'd be there for a long-awaited phone call from a higher power that will tell him the meaning of life, the universe, and everything. Management (literally the name of the boss) puts him to work on a mathematical proof for the meaninglessness of life, the universe, and everything. Hilarity ensues.

Had Terry Gilliam and debut writer Pat Rushin taken this premise as a launchpad for telling a darkly whimsical tale about the absurd condition of modern work and living, one imagines the result to be far different than what we're presented with. It appears though what Gilliam and Rushin have done is to take this premise and fit it into the shape of Brazil, so much so that the audience is advised for their health not to play a drinking game to predict which Brazil tropes (man doing meaningless work in an office designed to prevent work), character types (the creepy yet overly-friendly supervisor, the strong female interest with shady connections to the powers that be), visual gags (spot the anti-consumerist, anti-corporatist graffiti), and plot points will crop up in this film.

Yet the problem is not so much with originality than with the depressing feeling that we've seen this all before in a far more superior, more imaginative film the same way one might compare Louis Napoleon to his uncle, Napoleon Bonaparte. It's as though someone kidnapped Terry Gilliam, stole the reels to The Zero Theorem, and replaced them with a creative writing major who'd always wanted to make a tribute to Brazil, and that resulting film. Except Brazil is more coherent and surreal, and less literal and hamfisted, a creature of playful subtexts rather than a creature of that announces its obsessions, themes and variations upfront in minutes of expository, declamatory dialogue.

Zero Theorem serves as a style guide to classic Gilliam (a style that he's been moving away from for the past decade) but it's not a showcase of why his films are generally so good, or why his films are frustrating, bewildering and yet so sublime anyhow.

For a film that is far less than the sum of its parts, it is still possible to admire the derivative set design for the largely indoors film, as well as the valiant performances in the supporting cast, especially young Lucas Hedges, who more than holds his own against Christoph Waltz, and even the underutilised cameos by Matt Damon and Tilda Swinton.

So many things go wrong in this film but its biggest misstep—the inability to distinguish between the irony of its premise, and identifying that as the film's punchline—coupled with its derivative, second-hand feel seems to indicate intellectual and filmmaking laziness as the chief culprit. Then again, it could be a private little joke, a passive-aggressive play by Terry Gilliam in response to a financier who wanted “something like Brazil”.

After recent triumphs like The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus and Tideland, The Zero Theorem might be the weakest film Terry Gilliam has made for a long time. We hope the director returns to form soon.

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