If the choirs in Terry Gilliam's The Zero Theorem are ruined, they're anything but bare. The church inhabited by Qohen Leth (Christoph Waltz) in a dystopic, near-future London is crammed with books, debris, religious statuary and the computers on which Leth labors for a giant corporation on an elusive mathematical formula to prove that the universe is without meaning. Leth is in existential crisis: He refers to himself as "we"; his job (which resembles a video game) is Sisyphean; and he has spent decades awaiting an all-important phone call that will magically make everything clear.
This darkly screwball fantasia, written by Pat Rushin, inevitably recalls Gilliam's Brazil, down to Leth's desperate escapes into fantasy — here via virtual reality rather than daydreams. But that difference is telling: Oppressed by ubiquitous commerce rather than Brazil's Orwellian bureaucracy, Leth is sapped even of imagination, no less hope. Strong turns by Melanie Thierry (as a gamesome call girl), Lucas Hedges (as a teenage computer savant) and Tilda Swinton conspire with Waltz's poignantly understated neuroticism and Gilliam's rapturously overstuffed visuals to support the unlikely plot. But Zero Theorem might be Gilliam's bleakest vision yet, of a world where joy has been made purely synthetic.