Brilliant, eccentric mathematician Qohen Leth (Christoph Waltz) seeks to solve the Zero Theorem, a scientific riddle that proves… what? Nothing. The existence of nothing. Leth is a low-level worker for a large, impersonal company (prime Gilliam here), visually represented by hologram Management (Mark Damon), and he is obsessed with answering a phone call that will supposedly explain human existence. When the call finally arrives, will Leth be ready for the response?
Director Terry Gilliam, one of cinema's truly eccentric and singular voices and visual stylists, here draws back to his 1985 satirical masterpiece Brazil and his later dystopian science-fiction movie Twelve Monkeys. The Zero Theorem is a much sparser production than either of Gilliam's earlier movies. Gilliam, originally the animator on Monty Python's Flying Circus and the legendary comedy troupe's only American member, has not lost his knack for brutal, incisive comedy. Leth lives in a world overflowing with manic information, much like our own world, and lives as a recluse in an abandoned cathedral, never far from his computer terminal. Most of Leth's only interactions with the outside world are with Management, with his boss (the always delightful David Thewlis), with Management's supposed son Bob (Lucas Hedges) and with curvy dream girl Bainsley (Mélanie Thierry), who saves Leth from choking at a party. Leth also engages with a crazed analyst (Tilda Swinton, again in fine form) who only offers up terrible and meaningless advice.
The Zero Theorem is the best movie Gilliam has made since Twelve Monkeys and is a vibrant, blackly humorous return of one or our greatest fantastical moviemakers. Like many of his previous works, The Zero Theorem is stuffed with visual gags in every frame and demands patience and attentive viewing from audiences, but the payoff is rewarding and well worth the work. It's a dark ride at times, typical of Gilliam's movies, though always grounded in humanity and stays sensitive to the fact that we're all on this (possibly) meaningless trip together.