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VENICE - Playing an online shrink, Tilda Swinton raps for about 30 seconds at the midpoint of "The Zero Theorem" -- a stiff, Scots-accented Fresh Prince breakdown performed from under a broom-like hairpiece. It doesn't advance the story in any way, but then, nothing here does; her screen is switched off and the rap passes without comment, like a slippery fart in an elevator; the onscreen witnesses look sheepish to have heard it at all.
I lead with this otherwise irrelevant detail because it's the one moment in the film I can imagine hapless uninitiated viewers hearing about, and latching onto as a single reason to see the ghastly whole: "Tilda Swinton raps? This movie sounds crazy! This I gotta see." But you don't: it's merely a tone-deaf gag that perhaps has marginally more YouTube life in it than the surfeit of other tone-deaf gags in "The Zero Theorem," a British-French-Romanian-produced sci-fi bauble that says 'no' to little, and has evidently been said 'no' to a lot. Terry Gilliam films are hard to get made these days even if you're Terry Gilliam, a truth you could use to prompt a speech decrying the lack of eccentricity and risk-taking in studio-film fantasy, if not for a compelling alternative argument: Terry Gilliam films are hard to get made these days because Terry Gilliam films these days are kind of awful.
The British-adopted American arguably reached a more hopeful brink of awfulness with 2009's "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus," a botched but genuinely reckless formal gambit that at least has compelling design work on its side. But "The Zero Theorem" represents an alarming backslide, perhaps even past Gilliam's last film to play the Lido, 2005's desperate "The Brothers Grimm." A dystopian quest narrative that offers ample density without complexity, its superficial structural and symbolic parallels to "Brazil" -- still, at 28 years of age, the director's most broadly admired film -- suggest even Gilliam has clocked, and tired of, his creative decline. (We'll give the benefit of the doubt and say "parallels" when a director cribs from his own oeuvre, but first-time screenwriter Pat Rushin should arguably face harsher charges of thievery.)
Still, a strain (and I do mean strain) of disheartened self-nostalgia runs through "Theorem," touching on more than just the bureaucratic terror of "Brazil": its slap-headed victim-hero Qohan Leth (played by Christoph Waltz, also shorn of eyebrows and confidence) is a feyer Euro cousin to Bruce Willis in "12 Monkeys," for starters. Never mind that "The Zero Theorem" is essentially an obscure synonym for the already-taken "The Meaning of Life." None of the visual and story cues prompt comparisons that flatter the new film to any degree, though, while you needn't even view it relation to past works to wonder why it looks so appalling, with slipshod post-production and cinematographer Nicola Pecorini's hard lighting doing little to build upon a resourcefully spent but palpably meager budget.
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