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Waiting by the Phone

Terry Gilliam’s sci-fi romp looks for the meaning of life
Christoph Waltz and Melanie Thierry
Christoph Waltz and Melanie Thierry

Terry Gilliam is never going to make Brazil again, so put that thought, that impossible comparison, right out of your head. He’s going to make mad trifles and appealing visions that don’t speak to everyone — but if you’ve seen any of his more recent films, you probably already know whether they speak to you.

The Zero Theorem spoke to me, and then it didn’t and then it did. Clever and playful and dark, it skips from notion to visual gag and back again so quickly that not all of its thoughts have a chance to gel. In a not-so-distant future — the kind dotted with countless forbidding signs and moving billboards, colorful outfits and inescapable screens — a man named Qohen Leth (Christoph Waltz) works as a programmer for a company called ManCom. He speaks with the royal “we,” lives in a wonderfully crumbling cathedral and waits for a phone call with such longing that he requests to be allowed to work at home, in case the call comes. He’s a skilled enough worker (his work looks like a really unfun video game) that Management (Matt Damon) grants his wish, and puts him on an important new project. 

Qohen has the assistance, to varying degrees, of his nervously jovial supervisor, Joby (David Thewlis); a virtual therapist (Tilda Swinton, putting a spin on her Snowpiercer character, or vice versa); Management’s smart and no-bullshit son Bob (Lucas Hedges); and a young blonde named Bainsley (Mélanie Thierry), who he meets at a party.

Yes, the women appear for comfort and sex and the men appear for smarts and power, at least ostensibly; Gilliam sets Qohen up as someone working for the capital “M” Man and, unsurprisingly, the Man believes in tiresome gender norms. Everyone, in Gilliam’s biting but funny vision, is a tool of the Man, working endlessly towards a goal he (or she) might not even believe in. Awkward, peculiar Qohen at first seems the person least likely to pull himself free of these corporate shackles, but Gilliam (and screenwriter Pat Rushin) nudge him effectively enough down that bumpy path. 

The Zero Theorem’s message is nothing we haven’t heard before, but Gilliam’s still has a worthy knack for blending inventive images with unexpected humor and a dusting of shimmering rage.