Qohen Leth (Christoph Waltz) is a misanthrope who craves solitude, dislikes food with taste and refers to himself in the plural. His work consists of punching and crunching data for Management. He’s not really interested in the purpose of his job; all he wants to do is work from home and wait for his phone call. His immediate superior, chummy cockney chappie Joby (David Thewlis), thinks he can get Qohen a meeting with Management if he comes to a party at his home. At the party, Qohen meets Bainsley (Mélanie Thierry) who saves his life by performing the Heimlich manoeuvre on our socially hapless hero. This flirtatious beauty appears inexplicably attracted to him. Before he leaves, he also meets Management (Matt Damon), who sports suits that blend in with the furnishings and has a hairdo reminiscent of Karl Lagerfeld sans ponytail. The next day Joby informs him that his wish has been granted and he is free to work from home. His new assignment is to work on the Zero Theorem, proving that everything we know will eventually cease to exist, sucked into a black hole.
Whilst the film appears to be set in the future, all the references are to the present or the recent past. London is garish, fast-paced and still seems to have Boris Johnson as its mayor. Joby’s party guests are all plugged into headphones or staring at their tablets. This is Gilliam’s view of today’s society, plugged in yet spaced out and separated by the means created to enable greater communication. Qohen is the epitome of this: a man who can’t bear to be touched and who has forgotten what intimacy is. The phone call he so desperately awaits is one he believes will give his life meaning, but instead it becomes his excuse for not living his life.
The film’s weakness is that is a slightly garbled affair. Visually, it has a lot in common with Brazil, but is not equal to that film’s mad brilliance. In fact, the visual aspects – all mad outfits, coloured tubes and decaying buildings – just seem a little too silly. There are lots of scenes of Qohen manically playing with numbered cubes and there’s philosophical talk of theorems, but it’s all a little nonsensical. Its strength is in its humour and optimism. We see Qohen gradually opening up to the world and learning to love once again. Computer whiz kid Bob (Lucas Hedges), Management’s son, is a breath of fresh air in Qohen’s life as he orders in pizzas, calls him Q and torments him into dropping the royal “we” (“only the Queen speaks like that”).
As always, Waltz and Thewlis give us reliably good performances and there is also a neat comic turn from Tilda Swinton as Qohen’s shrink. This is certainly a better film than Gilliam’s recent outings and for that alone we should rejoice.