“We eat shit and shit shit.” Nothing short of poetry, this is Misha’s take on Branded’s cheerless dystopia that is its vision for future Russia. And he has a rather excellent point. A point that would be even more excellent if he was referring directly to the film itself, for that is all the film is — a vision. A god-awful, nauseating mess of what almost feels like a hallucination, this film fails in all the areas that good movies succeed in. It’s shot in some truly heinous photography that relentlessly infects every second of the film and has us begging for even just a brief shot of a clear blue sky.
An explanation is in order.
Branded opens in the streets of the gray, miserable gloom that has unofficially become the portrait of Soviet Russia. An agitated, young Misha runs down the street, presumably on his way to board a train. We never find out, for he is struck by lightning. He is then approached by a woman, possibly part gypsy — she’s got the cloak and the nose and the gratuitous predictions — who tells him that he will accomplish great things. Because if there is anything that precipitates greatness, it is winning the unlikely odds of getting struck by lightening and living to be told that consequential greatness lies ahead.
The scene shifts. We see grown-up Misha (Ed Stoppard) in the middle of traffic, looking as strained as if he’d been driving while battling severe constipation. Really, it’s just a lot of guesswork, because the film does astonishingly little to explain Misha’s actions and circumstances. It is one of those rare films where the first five minutes kindly let us know exactly what’s in store for the remaining two hours. Confusion, chaos, frustration, nausea and hilarity — the kind of hilarity that laughs only at the absurdity of it all.
A blur of jumbled scenes, flimsy characters and random shifts in screen aspect ratios make up the remainder of an unnecessary first act. For it says too much and communicates much too little. Just as all hopes of understanding the film seem to be lost, it starts to fall into rhythm. Kinda. Misha, advertising genius, starts an extreme makeover show starring the generic fat, unattractive, low self-esteem-rat-haired-pathetic excuse for a woman that such makeovers require. His partner is producer Abby Gibbons (Leelee Sobieski), and things quickly heat up. Why? Because the film needs him to take on the illusion of being three-dimensional; to have an automobile make-out session that can be snipped into the movie trailer; to have him have someone to talk to, someone to be rescued by when lying unconscious with his ass bare to the winds on the grassy plains of a desolate cow farm. But I digress. The reality show tanks, as he unknowingly falls victim to an elaborate scheme by a fast food mogul on a mission to make ‘fat’ the new look.
Misha is devastated. He runs to herd cows in the wilderness, and Abby pops in for just long enough to toss in a hilariously uninspired line (“What are you, some sort of Buddhist?”). She leaves, he stays. He sleeps. He gets up, sees the cows, axes the red one, slops himself with the blood, strips down, conks out on the grass, wakes up and then all of a sudden — sees the truth. The truth behind advertising.
For the first time, the film starts to matter. Or rather, is expected to matter. A film entitled Branded, starring familiar corporate giants (Yepple, GiantSoft, The Burger) as villains, carries the responsibility to tell us something insightful about marketing and the corporate world, and it teases up such expectations in the trailers. Expectations that are beaten down to a trough in the chaos of the previous acts and shattered when the film finally lets on that it really has nothing interesting to say on the matter.
Instead, it gives us monsters. Monsters that each represents a namesake brand. Monsters that are festering Seussian caricatures dug up from the gutter — flatulent, psychedelic globs that hurt the eyes and retch unpleasantly as they leech off people’s materialistic desires and fight amongst each other as they grow. It’s not really a metaphor because it’s rather too literal. It’s more of a children’s illustration, and an ugly one at that. Either the filmmakers envisioned a general room of dimwits to be instructed in Marketing 101 with pictures, or they hoped to cover the overwhelming emptiness of the film with flashy visuals. Either way, it’s insulting.
The irony of is that the misleading marketing villainized in the film is the very means by which it attempts to lure an audience. Movie trailers are nothing but advertisements that need not and do not tell the truth; despite what the filmmakers may think, we all know this. Yet, it is a sad day indeed when a film becomes hypocritical to its own message by being so, well, bad, when the trailer would suggest otherwise.
Unless of course, the entire film was intended to be a metaphor. A metaphor for the sad product of a capitalist world. A world in which advertisements in all their flash and glitter promise to bring us happiness in perfume bottles, iPads and movie tickets. A world in which the happiness is fleeting, filling us with an unquenchable void, for there is no substance in the modern material world. And as we try and fail to fight the emptiness within, we fall into a cycle of want, need and disappointment, increasingly falling into an inexplicable depression that only —
Oh never mind. The movie sucks. Watch something else on Friday night.