Mercurial Terry Gilliam can wax and wane. Beware the waning, because the result can be shockingly mediocre. Christopher Waltz is Qohen— don’t call him Cohen — a worker bee “entity cruncher” in the kind of video-sickened, retro-fantasy future Gilliam always portrays well. Qohen speaks of himself in the one-time papal third person, lives in a deserted, rat-dense former abbey, and has little love for mysterious employer Mancom (“Making sense of the good things in life”) run by a dictatorial manager (Matt Damon, in a cameo) who wants him to solve an equation whose bottom line should equal zero, which is also the prevailing sum of self and self-worth. But clumsy, hermit-like Qohen is less interested in solutions than getting a phone call he hopes will reverse his fortunes by giving him the meaning of life (he got the such a call ages ago but dropped the receiver).
Whatever traction this Baroque mash once had in Gilliam’s wildly creative mind, its cinematic execution is less quirky than mismanaged. It is too literal for parody and too awkward to denounce Orwellian society. The controlled wildness of “Brazil” or “12 Monkeys is inaccessible to the third piece of that trilogy.
Gilliam does have his fun with a coaxing, Barbarella-style vamp (Mélanie Thierry), a rapping online therapist (Tilda Swinton), and a pizza-loving genius nerd (Lucas Hedges) — not to mention tuxedo-wearing midget Nazis and a confusing array of sidebars on virtual reality, porn and black holes. But none of these dystopian distractions do much to help truth-seeking Qohen, or the movie, which Gilliam should have set aside as a fantasy gone awry (or at least set aside screenwriter Pat Rushin’s ineptness of vision). But restraint is not the Gilliam way.