‘The Zero Theorem’ Is Terry Gilliam at His Gilliam-est

The 2000s haven’t been so good to Terry Gilliam. He’s a filmmaker of singular style and distinctive vision, one whose pictures are immediately identifiable, and unmistakable for anyone else’s; he’s one of the few directors whose surname has become a description of its own, and “Gilliam-esque” demands as little explanation as “Hitchcockian” or “Fellini-esque” in movie geek circles. But after a run of jaw-dropping quality and unparalleled imagination in the 1980s and 1990s, his recent output has been uneven and problematic. Now there is a new Gilliam film, already available on demand and in theaters tomorrow; it’s called The Zero Theorem, and while it doesn’t match his previous masterpieces, it frequently manages to recapture the anti-authoritarian spirit and whirling dervish quality of his best work.

It’s long overdue. After establishing his surrealistic voice as house animator for Monty Python and making an impressive break into live-action filmmaking as director of the cult hits Time Bandits and Brazil and the hit-hits The Fisher King and 12 Monkeys, Gilliam hit a rough patch after the turn of the century. The Brothers Grimm sat on the fabled Miramax shelves for years, reportedly the recipient of tinkering and second-guessing by Harvey Weinstein; the resulting picture was a halfhearted effort that satisfied neither Gilliam fans nor the wide audience for which it was repurposed.

Still from "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus"

During Grimm’s lengthy post-production, Gilliam made the lower-budget and more personal Tideland, but that odd, insular, and often disturbing adult fairy tale suffered from the opposite problem of Grimm — it seemed to have been made for no one but Gilliam himself. Four years lapsed between the near-simultaneous 2005 release of those films and his next picture, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. The final film of Grimm co-star Heath Ledger, it’s a great-looking mess, its set pieces all jammed up next to each other like puzzle pieces that don’t quite fit, the filmmaker seemingly changing his mind about what kind of movie he wants to make approximately every 15 minutes.

That film was also jeopardized — and nearly abandoned — by the death of Ledger during production, which seemed like yet another instance of the filmmaker’s particularly rotten luck, best manifested in his most talked-about project of the 21st century, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. That modern take on the Quixote myth is the movie Gilliam can’t quite seem to make; its aborted first attempt in 2000 was captured in the documentary Lost in La Mancha, the failure so painstakingly chronicled that each time Gilliam announces a new iteration, he sounds increasingly like Quixote himself.

Still from "The Zero Theorem"

As a result, it feels like Gilliam — in spite of his fiercely independent working style and refusal to compromise — is plagued by an odd vulnerability that we don’t often associate with marquee directors. But that might also mean that those of us who admire his work (and I’d consider myself part of that camp) are pulling for him, and that’s certainly the right spirit with which to approach The Zero Theorem. It is filled with conscious echoes of his previous films: the props are Brazil-style mishmashes of old and new technology, the humor is Python-esque, even the shaved bald dome of star Christoph Waltz recalls that of Bruce Willis in 12 Monkeys. The wide-angled lenses, canted compositions, and busy frames (including a cityscape that looks like Times Square on acid) all seem designed to assure us that, yes, Mr. Gilliam is back, and haven’t you missed him?

I have — so much so that it’s tempting to overlook the picture’s undeniable flaws. It is (per normal) not exactly the tightest narrative, and entire supporting characters (like a pair of Laurel and Hardy-styled goons) are utterly inexplicable. It overstays its welcome a bit, particularly in the middle sections, as Gilliam gets bogged down in a romantic subplot that doesn’t quite hold water. And the remoteness of Waltz’s protagonist, who is so removed that he refers to himself in the plural (“You consider us a friend?”), is a long game that the script waits a bit too long to pay off.

But ultimately, it’s a new Terry Gilliam movie, and he’s never been one for tidiness. Zero Theorem is admirably idiosyncratic, its loose ends and general unruliness more than welcome in these tame movie-going times, and while most films would’ve spared us the sight of a buck-toothed Tilda Swinton rapping on a computer screen, I’m glad this one didn’t. (She’s quite funny, by the way, as is the invaluable David Thewlis.) It is Gilliam at his Gilliam-est, a description that should prompt joy among his admirers and retreat from his detractors. You know who you are. Act accordingly.

The Zero Theorem is available now on demand and in limited release tomorrow.