Venice 2013: 'The Zero Theorem' review

★★★☆☆
It's been a long time since Terry Gilliam made an unambiguously great film. Flash floods, the death of a lead actor and shrinking budgets have plagued this visionary ex-Python, famed for Time Bandits, Brazil and Twelve Monkeys. Showing in competition at Venice, The Zero Theorem (2013) - Gilliam's first since 2009's The Imaginarium of Dr Parnasus (2009) - returns us to the rag-and-bone shop of a dystopian London where mathematician Qohen Leth (Christoph Waltz) is busy crunching entities for Mancom, a company run by the 'Management' (Matt Damon, a dead ringer for Cannes organiser Thierry Frémaux).

Qohen is waiting for a phone call which will explain to him the meaning of life, and pesters his supervisor Joby (David Thewlis) to let him work from home. However, when his wish is granted and he's placed on a project to prove the 'Zero Theorem' - an attempt to confirm the essential meaninglessness of existence - Qohen, an alopecia-struck monkish recluse, begins to come apart at the seams. He is, however, aided and given succour by a virtual reality call girl called Bainsley (Mélanie Thierry) and Management's own son Bob (Lucas Hedges), a precocious 15-year-old who insists on calling everyone else "Bob", as remembering names takes up brain room.

As is readily apparent from this brief synopsis, anyone with an affection for Gilliam's work will find plenty to like here. Especially in the first quarter of the film, he jams his Shard-dominated London with plenty of satirical jabs at the present, from the 'Church of Batman' to the ubiquitous iPads and singing pizza boxes. Rats scurry about the old church which Qohen bought in a fire sale and he works on a kind of mathematical Jenga. However, even at this point the satire is less on the nose than it used to be - or of Gilliam-influenced contemporaries such as Charlie Brooker's Black Mirror. The pestering advertising, for instance, was done better some years ago by Steven Spielberg in his futuristic 2002 thriller Minority Report.

However, when Qohen retires to his home to work alone, The Zero Theorem comes unstuck. All of Gilliam's little details are fun and there are some laugh-out-loud lines, but the actual story itself is never compelling and simply doesn't zip as it should. This one-set stasis could well be a function of budgetary constraints, or perhaps first-time screenwriter Pat Rushin intended to create something more like a play. Occasional forays within a virtual reality tropical beach do little to relieve the claustrophobia, and Bainsley's character is frankly misogynistic - with plenty of shots of the actress adorned in needlessly skimpy attire.

The Oscar-winning Waltz, however, is as fine a comic actor and watchable a screen presence as ever. Thewlis looks like he's having more fun than he's had in a while, and there are also several fun 'blink-and-you'll-miss-'em' cameos from the likes of Brit Ben Whishaw, Dane Peter Stormare and an unrecognisable turn from Tilda Swinton, as Qohen's online shrink. Best of all, however, is Hedges, whose cocky programmer with a pile of sci-fi references gets some of the best lines. Ultimately, however, despite The Zero Theorem's weighty philosophical musings, there's a somewhat disappointing end of term feel to Gilliam's latest.

The 70th Venice Film Festival takes place from 28 August to 7 September, 2013. For more of our Venice 2013 coverage, simply follow this link.

John Bleasdale

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