In some not-so-distant, sparkly-bright dystopian future, brilliant and determinedly solitary mathematician Qohen Leth (Christoph Waltz) suffers through the tiny indignities of daily life. He's forced to leave the burnt-out church he calls home to report for work, where he crunches numbers for his clueless immediate supervisor Joby (David Thewlis). But all he wants is to stay close to his telephone, waiting for a call he believes will help him unravel the mysteries of the universe and his existence.
When mysterious head honcho Management (a silver-haired Matt Damon) finally gives him leave to work from home, Qohen is assigned the impossible Zero Theorem, a mathematical conundrum that has defeated many a mathematician before him. To keep him from going completely around the bend, Management sends him company in the form of Bainsley (Mélanie Thierry), a nubile young woman with whom he forges an unexpected emotional connection; and Management's own genius teenage son Bob (Lucas Hedges).
If you're looking for a plot that makes sense and progresses in logical fashion, The Zero Theorem is not the film for you. In Gilliam's movie, based on a loopy, mind-bending script by Pat Rushin, plot points are more often than not metaphors for the human condition. The script can be simultaneously literal and obtuse: Qohen lives in a hollowed-out church, a blindingly obvious symbol of the fading of traditional religion; he's waiting for a call - read: calling - that will free him from the humdrum banalities of a worker-bee's life.
But that's also where the film's genius lies. It's an explosion of philosophical ideas, asking deep, difficult questions about happiness, humanity and hubris - often in the same scene. Few films and film-makers would dare to so boldly confront existential issues on this scale and to this depth. The titular Zero Theorem, after all, requires Qohen to prove that everything is nothing: that the entire universe, filled with people, ultimately has no meaning. Qohen's strange, isolated journey hints at some answers, but not anywhere near all of them.
Gilliam could easily have failed on two counts: the seemingly stereotypical blonde love interest; and the annoyingly precocious teenage boy. But, within these archetypes, The Zero Theorem finds something fascinating to say. Bainsley starts out as a ditzy blonde dream girl, but winds up offering Qohen plenty of soul and an elusive, transient kind of eternity. Bob, too, is a whip-smart delight, a child more in tune with the silent beats and rhythms of the universe than any number of people older and purportedly wiser than him.
The film would fail catastrophically without a leading man capable of handling the tragedy and comedy of Qohen Leth - a character who, in habitually referring to himself using the royal 'we' , is a metaphor for every human being that has ever been and will ever be. Waltz is more than up to the task. He is hilariously effective when called upon to wriggle into a skin-tight virtual-reality costume, and devastatingly heartbreaking in the moment when Qohen refuses a chance at freedom and happiness to stay locked into the dark, nihilistic world in which he lives.
There are also a pair of wonderful supporting turns - slightly larger than cameos - from Damon and Tilda Swinton. The former clearly enjoyed his time working on The Brothers Grimm, one of Gilliam's most disastrous on-set experiences, and here, he provides a grim, mysterious counterpoint to Waltz's Cohen - the latter only appears to be impenetrable and tough to crack. Swinton, meanwhile, is a hoot as Dr. Shrink-Rom, Qohen's at-home, virtual psychiatrist, fumbling through their sessions with tons of blustery, false cheer.
Perhaps most astounding of all is the fact that Gilliam made a film that looks so good - in its inventive, kitschy way - on a shoestring budget of US$8.5 million. That's pocket change for most Hollywood films, and there's no doubt that everyone involved took a huge pay-cut to make The Zero Theorem look as great as it does. The special effects are mostly wonderful, and the neon-coloured world through which the black-clad Qohen stalks practically bursts at the seams with detail and imagination.
The Zero Theorem is emphatically not a film that will appeal to everyone. There are those who will find themselves incredibly annoyed by its philosophical navel-gazing, and others who might find Qohen's entire journey pointless and irredeemably self-involved. But, when it comes down to it, it's hard to deny the weird, wacky power of Gilliam's movie. The Zero Theorem so bravely grapples with big ideas and complicated metaphors that it's hard not to admire the director's great courage and even greater ambition.