The Zero Theorem


Qohen Leth parties like it's 2099.

Qohen Leth parties like it’s 2099.

(2014) Science Fiction (Well Go USA) Christoph Waltz, Melanie Thierry, Matt Damon, David Thewlis, Ben Whishaw, Lucas Hedges, Tilda Swinton, Sanjeev Bhaskar, Rupert Friend, Peter Stormare, Dana Rogoz, Madison Lygo, Ingrid Bisu, Naomi Everson, Radu Andrei Micu, Tudor Istodor, Olivia Nita, George Remes, Iulia Verdes, Alin Olteanu, Margarita Doyle. Directed by Terry Gilliam

The more complicated life gets – and make no mistake, it grows more complex with each passing day – the more we struggle to make sense of it. If you think it’s bad now, just imagine with those living in the future are going to have to contend with.

Qohen Leth (Waltz) is an office drone who has all sorts of issues. He’s a bit of a hypochondriac, sure that he is dying. He refers to himself in the second person – we instead of I, us instead of me. He works for Mancom, a company that makes some kind of software that brings convenience – or nothing at all. He is a data cruncher which in the future involves a Tetris-like placing of data squares into geometric city-like constructions, while furiously pedaling a flywheel. Data is transferred in vials of liquid. Being an office worker in the future sucks.

Qohen lives in an abandoned church infested with rats and pigeons, leaking from the roof and looking inside like a bomb hit it. He sleeps in the pipe organ and really would prefer to work at home, having no love for his fellow man. He’s also obsessed with a phone call he is sure is coming – one which will explain to him What It All Means and what his place in the grand scheme of things is. He’s twitchy, neurotic and in short, the very model of a modern Major General.

He asks his boss Joby (Thewlis) to get him permission to telecommute which doesn’t seem likely; the company likes keeping track of its workers. Qohen also meets Bainsley (Thierry) at a party thrown by Joby that Qohen goes to reluctantly, mainly to try and get a one-on-one audience with Management (Damon), the reclusive CEO of Mancom. He doesn’t know how to handle the forward Bainsley and although she gives him her card, there doesn’t seem to be any future for a relationship there. However, he is successful in getting time with Management (who wears clothing to blend into the decor) and at last is given a project he can work on at home.

New equipment is installed in his cluttered cathedral, mainly by the genius level Bob (Hedges) who turns out to be the son of Management (now doesn’t that sound like an office-based horror flick?) who addresses everyone as Bob because he doesn’t have time to learn their names. But he really isn’t a bad sort.

In the meantime Qohen is doing strikingly well with the project and getting close to making it work and things with Bainsley are turning out superbly, particularly when they meet on a digital beach where the sun is eternally setting. Life is good online at least.

But the closer Qohen gets to completing his project, the more frustrated he gets and the more he begins to retreat back into his shell. As it turns out, the project is about mathematically proving that everything equals nothing, which proves that there’s no point to life. The chaos this will create Mancom will profit from. And so it goes.

This has director Terry Gilliam’s thumbprint all over it, from the details, the somewhat wacky atmosphere that has marked all his work from his time as the only American member of Monty Python’s Flying Circus through his visionary career. Gilliam is certainly an acquired taste; not everyone gets his sense of humor and clearly his films don’t make a lot of money with few exceptions (Time Bandits being one). However, his work can be startlingly good and when it works he is one of the best directors living today. Even throwaway lines – an advertisement for the Church of Batman the Redeemer – can bust me up laughing.

Waltz, head shaved and twitchy, is terrific here. You get the sense that this is an individual who is in deep pain and takes great pains to make sure he remains so. There are some hints that give background into his psyche  but clearly this is a man who in our society would be undergoing all sorts of therapy and might well be committed. He seems to fit in real well in the future.

He gets some fine support, particularly from Hedges whose Bob becomes good friends with Qohen in an oddball way, and Thierry who is beautiful and charismatic as the love interest. All of the characters show some sort of vulnerability at some point, wearing masks to hide their pain. Qohen is a little more up-front about it. Management, being management, shows no weakness.

Visually this is an amazing movie, from majestic scenes of a black hole to the rotting interior of Leth’s home and the clever scenes of what is supposed to be London (maybe) in the near future but is more than likely Bucharest. There is a definite steampunk look to the film which is kind of a thing this year in indie films.

This hasn’t received any sort of release yet, although the movie’s website is promising a summer release. I hope that the distributors deliver on this; this is a movie that should be seen, by Gilliam’s fanbase if by nobody else. This is among his very best films which makes it a classic in the making, so serious film buffs should check this out even if they aren’t especially fond of Gilliam’s work.

REASONS TO GO: When it hits the mark, it’s mind-blowing. Terrific set design and Waltz is terrific in a very different role than you’re used to seeing for him.

REASONS TO STAY: As Gilliam films are prone to do, they can meander sometimes. If you don’t like Gilliam’s films, you won’t like this.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are some expletives here and there as well as some sexuality and brief nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: During the park scene, screenwriter Pat Rushin (who also teaches creative writing at the University of Central Florida) can be seen on a bench writing on his briefcase; he’s actually writing motivational lines that scroll across the computer screen in the cubicles during a different part of the film. His wife can also be glimpsed reading a newspaper.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/2/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 54% positive reviews. Metacritic: 51/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Brazil

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: The Railway Man

Extract


Extract

Kristen Wiig finds out Dustin Milligan has all the right moves.

(Miramax) Jason Bateman, Kristen Wiig, Ben Affleck, Mila Kunis, J.K. Simmons, David Koechner, Clifton Collins Jr., T.J. Miller, Beth Grant, Dustin Milligan, Gene Simmons. Directed by Mike Judge

In the classic 1999 film Office Space, writer/director Mike Judge looked at the life of a cubicle drone in a fairly sympathetic manner. Not only was it one of the most hilarious comedies of the ‘90s, it’s one of the funniest films ever. Despite a lackluster box office performance, it found cult status on home video afterwards.

Now a decade later, Judge is revisiting the work environment in Extract. Here, however, his sights are set on management, in the person of Joel (Bateman), the owner of an extract business (extracts are the flavor essences of various spices, fruits and vegetables used in cooking). His life could use some spice; his workers are mostly a dissatisfied, unmotivated lot. The one who had any enthusiasm at all, Step (Collins), had one of his testicles shorn off in a freak accident caused by one of the shrewish entitlement harpies who decided that she shouldn’t have to work as hard as the temporary worker they recently hired.

Now, Step has been enticed into suing the company by Cindy (Kunis), a self-serving con artist recently hired on as a temp and looking to make some easy money at the company’s expense. She’s convinced the slightly moronic Step that she has the hots for him. Yeah, right…as if. Now, the pending lawsuit is being pursued by rabid dog lawyer Joe Adler (Gene Simmons) just when General Mills is showing interest in buying the company, which would essentially set up Joel and his partner Brian (J.K. Simmons) up for life. Instead, the lawsuit would effectively shut the company down for good.

Things aren’t much better for Joel at home. His wife Suzie (Wiig) has essentially lost interest in sex; if he arrives home after 8pm (which he almost always does), the sweatpants will be cinched tightly around her waist ; once that occurs  any chance he might have at sex that evening gets vaporized. Sometimes, the dreaded sweatpants of abstinence might be on before 8pm. Joel complains about the situations to his good friend Dean (Affleck), a bartender by trade and pothead by avocation who can usually offer bad advice on any subject. This time, his stoner friend advises him to cheat on Suzie but Joel is unable to do it. So Dean recommends that he get Suzie to cheat instead; once she does, he won’t feel as bad about getting sex outside the marriage.

To do this, Joel hires a dimwitted mono-browed gigolo named Brad (Milligan) to seduce his wife, but the plan works too well; Brad falls in love with Suzie and starts to make regular visits. So too does Nathan (Koechner), quite possibly the most annoying neighbor in the history of neighborhoods. Joel’s world is crumbling around him and it isn’t really fair; after all, he’s just a nice guy who only wants to sell cooking extracts – and he’s really, really good at making them.

First of all, this isn’t Office Space. While there’s a similar style to both movies, they’re two completely different kettles of fish; comparing them is kind of a waste of time. Oh, certainly you’ll form an opinion and chances are that if you liked the first movie, you’ll probably like this one too. However, Office Space is far more satirical that this puppy and goes for a much broader kind of humor. Extract makes a lot more hay based on feeling and environment.

Of course, there’s Jason Bateman who is emerging as the kind of likable Everyman sort of guy that used to be the sole province of Greg Kinnear. Bateman’s so completely nice as Joel that you can’t help but root for him. The rest of the cast does pretty good as well, particularly Affleck sporting an al Quaeda beard as the well-intentioned friend. Affleck has really emerged as a reliable supporting actor; I’m curious to see how he does in a lead role again in The Town when it opens later this fall.

Kunis, who has recently been cast in action roles that don’t seem to suit her nearly as much (see Max Payne and The Book of Eli) seems way more comfortable in this comedic Jezebel role. J.K. Simmons and Clifton Collins are both reliable character actors who don’t disappoint here, and Wiig does her best MILF impression as you can see in the photo above.

Extract was overshadowed by comedies like The Hangover and Funny People when it was released last year, and like Office Space didn’t do gangbusters box office. It’s available now on DVD and cable, so do yourself a favor and check it out. Hopefully it’ll get a similar kind of cult following Office Space did on the home video market.

WHY RENT THIS: A return to form by Judge after his godawful Idiocracy. Bateman is becoming adept at the everyman role.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Humor can be pretty scattershot in places.

FAMILY VALUES: The language is a bit foul in places, there are some sexual and adult situations and a little bit of drug use; this probably isn’t for sensitive souls.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Gary Cole, who played Bill Lumbergh in Office Space, makes a cameo in the bar scene standing between Dean and Joel.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Get Low

Management


Just say "ohhhhhhhhm"

Just say "ohhhhhhhhm"

(Goldwyn) Jennifer Aniston, Steve Zahn, Woody Harrelson, Fred Ward, Margo Martindale, Tzi Ma, James Hiroyuki Liao, Katie O’Grady, Gavin Bristol, Yolanda Suarez, Robert Zorn, Dominic Fumusa, Moreen Littrell. Directed by Stephen Belber.

Loneliness can do funny things to you. It sucks away your self-confidence and makes you do crazy things, things you’d never do if you weren’t feeling that ache of having nobody in your life. Call it desperation if you will, but we definitely find ourselves reaching out for someone, anyone who we can hold onto in the night, even if it’s the absolutely wrong person. Once in a great while, that person who seems so wrong can turn out to be surprisingly right.

Mike (Zahn) doesn’t have a whole lot of what you’d call direction in his life. He works for his parents doing odd jobs and acting as night manager for the budget hotel they run in Kingman, Arizona. He has nobody in his life, whiling away his days eating Chinese food in a deserted restaurant, going to yoga classes and smoking like a chimney. His mother (Martindale) is very ill, and his father (Ward) is a Vietnam veteran who came back from the war emotionally shut down.

Into their lobby walks Sue Claussen (Aniston), a beautiful, elegant woman who sells art for corporate display. Mike is immediately smitten with her, and tries to win her with free wine (albeit free bad wine) that he delivers to her room. He’s awkward and a little bit creepy, but there’s something sweet about his awkwardness. When he remarks that he admires her butt, on a bit of a whim she allows him to touch her butt as long as he promises to leave her room immediately after.

Something about the incident sticks with her and when she’s about to check out, she seeks him out in the laundry room instead and the two wind up having passionate sex on the folding table. She heads back home to Baltimore, thinking that this strange entanglement is over.

Someone forgot to tell Mike, though, and he follows her to Baltimore. Instead of a one night stand, the two begin to find something more between them than just two people reaching out in the night. They begin an on-again, off-again long distance relationship (that is admittedly mostly off-again). After Mike’s mom dies, he finds out that Sue has moved to Aberdeen, Washington (the home of the late Kurt Cobain for trivia fanatics) to be with her punk rocker turned yogurt magnate ex-boyfriend Jango (Harrelson) who wants to marry her. Mike follows her there with nothing to lose, determined to see if love can triumph over need.

Writer-director Belber crafts a thoroughly sweet confection that is neither dazzling nor especially insightful, but then again it doesn’t really have to be. The leads are intensely likable, and you root for them to get together, despite all their hang-ups and emotional scars (Mike’s mom characterizes Sue as “a bit of a long-shot, in an emotionally annihilated way,” which is as eloquent a description as any. The film moves at a deliberate pace that doesn’t feel forced nor overly long.

Zahn always seems to play the sweet loser in most of his roles, and he does it to the hilt here. His Mike isn’t the sharpest knife in the butcher block, but what he lacks in smarts he makes up for in heart and determination. Aniston delivers another underrated performance, giving her character nuance and emotional depth. The one quibble I had was that she should have been a little bit frumpier in appearance; here she looks like a movie star, gorgeous and well-dressed. That doesn’t really fit well with the character.

Another thing to look for here is Fred Ward. He only has a few scenes as Mike’s dad, but he makes the most of them. I’ve always considered him to be a criminally underrated performer who should be getting more and better roles. He has a scene near the end of the movie with Zahn that he absolutely nails – it’s one of the best moments in the film.

This is essentially about two characters making a journey. In Mike’s case, he’s maturing into a man with an idea of who he is and what he wants to be, whereas for Sue she’s coming out of hiding from behind her causes and neuroses and able to appreciate herself for who she is, and allow herself to feel love and receive it.

You won’t get the kind of grand insights that you might be looking for in an independent film, but then again, why should every movie have to supply that? This is like a Krispy Kreme doughnut fresh from the oven; a lot of air and not a tremendous amount of substance and sure, you know it’s absolutely empty calories but my, oh my it tastes good and makes you feel warm inside.

WHY RENT THIS: The movie oozes charm and sweetness like a jelly doughnut. The leads are likable and just awkward enough to be sweet.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Jennifer Anniston is a bit too glamorous for her character. The ending is a mite too Hollywood for my tastes.

FAMILY VALUES: Not much at all to dissuade the kids from coming along. If they like “Friends” they’ll probably enjoy this.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Director Stephen Belber’s previous job was as a playwright.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Nothing listed.

FINAL RATINGS: 6/10

TOMORROW: Battle in Seattle