The next I remember seeing was Fisher King, which came out the year I graduated college. I must have gone back five times to see it over and over again (this was the days when a full price ticket was about six bucks). It remains one of my favorites of all time.
My actual favorite of all time, however, is Brazil, regarded by many fans as his masterpiece. Thank god DVDs don’t wear out, is all I can say about that.
Baron Munchausen was weird but not terrible, then came Twelve Monkeys, which was interesting if not great.
Here ended my love of Terry Gilliam movies–or so I feared. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was a bit too drug centered for my taste (I actually rewatched it this weekend, and it’s exactly as I remember it — a couple of idiotic maniacs, high off their asses, acting insane. Its only redeeming qualities seem to be you don’t really need to follow the plot because there isn’t one, and it’s a great way to feel like you’ve done drugs without actually killing brain cells, only time. Oh, and cameos. Lots and lots of cameos). And you can read here for my dislike/outright detestation of Dr. Parnassus and Tideland, respectively. I thought I liked The Brothers Grimm, but recently rewatched (for Game of Thrones Lena Headey), and was forced to admit it was really quite terrible.
I was sad and bereft, thinking my love affair had ended.
Then along came The Zero Theorem, and I was cautiously optimistic.
The first thing we see of Gilliam’s new dystopia is an ad for The Church of Batman the Redeemer. This is far from the last blasphemy in this film.
Qohen (pronounced Cohen) Leth (played by a man with an equally distinctive name, Christoph Waltz) has issues. In a world inundated by marketing and social media, he just wants to be alone. (As usual, Gilliam ups the undesirable elements to an absurd degree – billboards are now scrolling marquees that literally follow you down the street, and at one point Qohen is forced to attend a party where he’s the only one without his face behind an iPad constantly taking selfies. It’s not hard to figure out which time period is being satirized). He speaks in the royal “we” and lives in a decaying old church. He dreams of floating naked in the vast cold nothingness of space.
Where was I? Oh. Issues. He’s a cubicle rat performing a mysterious but seemingly repetitive, pointless job that resembles video poker. He insists repeatedly to his supervisor (a cheerfully wacky David Thewlis) that he can be more productive working from home. He wants to stay home, we later learn, because he’s waiting for a very important phone call (which begs the question, what happens to cellphones in the future? But Qohen doesn’t seem like a man who embraces modern technology; much like Gilliam.)
His wish is granted by Management (Matt Damon, whose suits literally blend with the scenery. Big Brother always watching?) at the aforementioned party, and Qohen is assigned to the Zero Theorem. This again involves manipulating blocks in a video game to solve complex equations (and god bless Gilliam, his graphics still look circa 1992), with the ultimate (and implied impossible) goal of making “zero equal 100%.” (In layman’s terms, we later learn, prove the universe is one giant glitch that has no meaning.)
He meets Bainsley, a plucky call girl (sent supposedly by Management, which kind of doesn’t make sense if they want him free of distractions). She’s the one he explains the deal with the phone call: one night he was awoken by the phone, a voice he somehow knew would give his life purpose. But he dropped the phone and lost the call, and has been awaiting a callback ever since.
She gives him a virtual reality suit that makes him look like a hobgoblin and plugs him into the neural net — for sexy funtimes with her, and at the climax, to converse again with Management. (Funniest line in the whole movie, as he valiantly struggles to squeeze into the form fitting monstrosity — “It is NOT one size fits all,” in his glum Austrian accent.)
Qohen gets burnt out and Management’s son Bob comes to help. Oh, and Tilda Swinton takes another bizarre turn as Shrink ROM, his virtual psychiatrist.
I won’t go scene by scene, but there are highlights (and major spoilers, so if you like surprises at all, stop here). Outfitting Qohen’s church to work at home involves surveillance cameras everywhere, the most prominent stuck on the neck stump of a decapitated crucified Christ. If that isn’t symbolic, I’ll eat my Criterion Collection 3-disc Brazil set.
Qohen is perfectly happy having risk-free, touch-free sex with Bainsley (only implied; Gilliam is still old school in keeping his movies relatively prudish), but he refuses her offer to run away in real life. It’s been suggested in some forums that she obviously represents the call he’s been waiting for, but he’s too narrow-minded to see it.
Which brings us to Management, and clearly the heart of the movie. Matt Damon explains the point of solving the theorem (“There is money in creating order from disorder”; deliberately nebulous) and why Qohen was chosen (he’s a man of faith (waiting diligently for a phone call that may never come). People of faith (i.e. religious) treat this life as a way station before the next, implying they waste it focusing on heaven. I’m sure lots of them would protest that they do plenty of meaningful things on earth, but they aren’t in this movie to defend themselves. That’s why Qohen, who wasn’t doing anything with his life anyway, had time to spare for the theorem.
Unfortunately Gilliam doesn’t seem to know where to go from there, having laid all his cards on the table. Qohen vanishes into the swirling space anomaly of his dreams. He ends up back on Bainsley’s virtual beach, though it’s not clear if he’s waiting for her or happy enough alone. Either way, the end. (Which I’ll grant you is a less gloomy end than Brazil, where our hero is tortured into insanity.)
This is being called “Brazil Lite” or “Brazil’s Little Brother.” The similarities are undeniable, though I won’t enumerate them. I like what Gilliam seems to be saying about religion and the meaning of life, even if it’s one of his less coherent messages. And Christoph Waltz has the most wonderfully melancholic face, I love staring at it (though not enough to give Inglourious Basterds another shot; Tarantino sadly cancels out any number of great and talented actors).
And the thing is, I get Qohen Leth. I understand his dislike for the outside world, of loud people and the hustle and bustle of modern life (although I don’t share his disdain for technology). I get how little he needs people (“We were always alone, never lonely”). Which makes it that much sweeter when he connects with Bainsley in the computer tropical paradise, and his face transforms to delight. Because as a loner, I’ll admit that contentment is closer to my baseline than outright happiness. Happy takes effort and energy to sustain, content is low maintenance.
I’m mainly just happy (I mean, content) to not be completely turned off by Gilliam yet again, which I never thought would be the highest praise I could muster for him.