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Review:  ‘Zero Theorem’ adds up to almost nothing

Melanie Thierry, right, and Christoph Waltz star in "The Zero Theorem."
(Amplify Releasing)

In the showy sci-fi fantasy “The Zero Theorem,” a man spends his life waiting for an elusive phone call that will explain the meaning of life and, as a result, learns he has led a meaningless life. That kind of elliptical thinking permeates way too much of this latest carnival ride from idiosyncratic filmmaker Terry Gilliam, who directed based on a ponderous if undeniably ambitious script by Pat Rushin.

Gilliam considers “Zero Theorem” to be the final part of a dystopian trilogy that began in 1985 with his “Brazil” and was followed in 1995 by “12 Monkeys.” The new film is set in an unspecified future where everything’s been hyper-commercialized, computers run people’s lives and corporations see all and know all. Uh, kind of like the present.

Which prompts the question: Why not save all the time, effort and money on fetishistic production design, whacked-out hair and costumes, and stylized storytelling and simply place the movie today — in the world as we know it?

But that may have meant making a film about real people with genuine issues and saying something viewers might more readily relate to. And really, who needs Terry Gilliam for that?

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What we’re handed instead is the overly precious, mind-bending (and not in a good way) tale of one Qohen (pronounced Coe-in) Leth played by a committed and practically unrecognizable Cristoph Waltz. Leth is an eccentric, uber-phobic and, for some reason, utterly hairless “entity cruncher” for the vast and powerful Mancom corporation. What Leth actually does at the company’s casino-like headquarters is less important than the fact that the morbidly practical genius would rather do it — whatever it is — from his home, a burnt-out, cluttered former church.

So Mancom’s big cheese, known soley as Management (a miscast Matt Damon), makes Leth a deal: You can work at home if you attempt to solve the Zero Theorem, an arcane mathematical formula that, like the phone call Leth may never receive, has something to do with the purpose of existence. It’s a big who-cares that serves as a nominal engine to send Leth on a road to personal healing — or not.

Also brought into Leth’s screwy mission, which takes place mostly within the confines of his tech-outfitted dwelling (when he’s not venturing out into the Trafalgar Square-meets-"Blade Runner"-esque city streets), are Leth’s jaunty supervisor, Joby (David Thewlis), an intoxicating sex worker improbably named Bainsley (Mélanie Thierry) and Management’s lively wunderkind of a teenage son, Bob (Lucas Hedges, a bright spot). An oddest-couple pair of henchmen called the Clones (Emil Hostina, Pavlic Nemes) and a digital shrink with bad advice and worse timing (the ever-game Tilda Swinton) also pop up for further outlandish window dressing.

Will Leth ever crack the mystery of the Zero Theorem much less find the antidote to his utter misery? Several soul-soothing romps on an idyllic, virtually generated beach with the fetching Bainsley, who’s also a porny webcam star, just might help.

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At the very least, these faux-seaside scenes provide a tonic for the viewer. Like Leth himself, you’ll never want to leave these bronzed sands and return to the noisy ugliness of the picture’s suffocating, gaudily concocted world. This “Theorem” is all sizzle, zero steak.

“The Zero Theorem.”

MPAA rating: R for language, sexuality, nudity.

Running time: 1 hour, 46 minutes.

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Playing at Sundance Sunset, Los Angeles.


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