Terry Gilliam is one of the most insane directors we have currently working. There’s nothing he won’t do, it seems, and every movie feels like an effort to top himself. Sometimes that creates greatness (12 Monkeys, Brazil, parts of The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus) and sometimes that way leads to madness (the little of Tideland I could watch, and parts of The Fisher King). Say what you will about the actual quality of his films, he rarely holds himself back. The Zero Theorem, his first movie in five years, is no exception as he gets as philosophical as he has ever been when he ponders the meaning of life and what happens if everything is nothing.
Of course, a bunch of movies have these kinds of questions in mind, but they hardly ever have the pluck or sense of humor that Gilliam at his best brings to a film. I know it’s probably blasphemous to say this, but The Zero Theorem might be his best work. I’m probably super biased, as I love these psychobabble movies, but I can’t deny that the movie really really worked for (on?) me. A large part of that credit goes towards the story, written by Pat Rushin, which constantly straddles the line between comprehensibility and insanity, between profundity and pretentiousness, between mundanity and exoticness. It’s a delightful script, too, as it allows Gilliam his usual playful exuberances visually and tonally. Although the film is pondering the Deep Thought-type questions of the universe, Gilliam and Rushin never allow it to get too serious. The actors, led by Christoph Waltz who proves for the first time that he can carry an entire movie on his back, perform their own silliness extremely well. It must be difficult to get all of these ideas, both intellectual and emotional, across while not delving into parody or archness, and from David Thewlis as a hapless middle manager to Lucas Hedges as a hardware whiz-kid to Matt Damon as the possibly malicious corporate head with a chameleon wardrobe, all the actors are wonderful. A special mention must go to Mélanie Thierry, who performs her semi-Manic Pixie Dream Girl role as admirably and charmingly as such a role has ever been played. She’s wonderful.
If this all ended poorly, it might be an interesting failure. It would join Tideland as one of those movies which has its supporters but never found the success it deserves. Heck, I might very well be one of those crazies shouting from the hilltops about its glory. But damn, does it stick the landing. There’s a lot going on in this movie, and some of it involves some complex-ish literary theory to grasp fully, but suffice it to say that it revolves around the author’s we and performative utterances, plus some Bible knowledge (thanks Wikipedia!) and some heavy lifting. I guess The Zero Theorem probably won’t be a huge hit, and it is very likely going to divide audiences with its deliberate insanity which masks the film’s loftier intentions. I really fell for it.