Branded makes a strong case for why wonky conspiracy theories should never, ever serve as the foundation of a screenplay. This movie is bizarre, self indulgent, appallingly cynical, and unlikely to be understood by anyone inside or out of the world it mercilessly targets. While obviously intended as a dark satire of advertizing and consumerism, it comes off as a series of hysterical ramblings that in all likelihood have little to no basis in actual fact. Watching this movie, I repeatedly shook my head in stunned disbelief. What point did writers/directors Jamie Bradshaw and Aleksandr Dulerayn think they were making? How did they manage to find a company willing to distribute it theatrically? Better still, how did they manage to find a person or persons willing to finance it in the first place?
The opening half, which could arguably rival Atlas Shrugged: Part I in the massive scope of its nothingness, begins in the early 1980s in Moscow. We see a young boy, who was assigned a number and is waiting in a long line, look up into the night sky and see a vision of a constellation in the shape of a cow’s head. Immediately after this, he’s struck by lightning. “Young man,” says the woman who slaps him back into consciousness, “you’re going to have a very unusual life.” And so we flash forward the present day. The boy, who’s now grown and is named Misha (Ed Stoppard), works as a spy for an advertizing agency run by an American named Bob Gibbons (Jeffrey Tambor), who I think was also involved in something covert. Misha came to work for Bob when the latter agreed to pay off debts the former owed for his failed marketing company.
Misha gets into a relationship with Bob’s niece, Abby (Leelee Sobieski), who’s looking to be the producer of a Russian reality show where fat women are surgically made thin. It’s obviously modeled after Extreme Makeover, and this is but one of many westernized corporate logos that are spoofed all throughout the film. Anyway, the chosen contestant mysteriously goes into a coma during her procedure, prompting women of all sizes to form protests. This works to the advantage of an unnamed marketing guru (Max von Sydow), who runs his own advertizing agency somewhere in the South Pacific; because the protests stress that one need not surgically change their appearances, that it’s okay to be fat, he can oversee the creation of a new fast food chain called The Burger. This comes at a time when other fast food giants are reporting gigantic annual losses.
A disillusioned Misha leaves Moscow to escape the incessant advertizing. Six years later, after sacrificing a cow and bathing in its ashes – which, incidentally, he was instructed to do in a dream within a dream – he returns to Moscow and finds not only that everyone is fat but also that fat has been accepted as desirable. He reunites with Abby, and although she has been a part of Moscow culture for years, she has somehow stayed thin. She now has a chubby little boy, who constantly craves food from The Burger. It’s at this point that Misha begins to see creatures emanating from the backs of people’s necks. They’re nondescript blobs of color, which bob about like half-inflated balloons. Sometimes, they expand, branch off, and join with massive blob creatures poking from the roofs of buildings. Believing that brands have somehow come to life and are feeding off of our desires, Misha decides to take action and rid the world of advertizing.
Is this making any sense at all? The more you try and process the logic that went into this film, the more impossible it becomes. Consider the persistent use of an omniscient voiceover narration, intended to provide expository information; the more the detached female voice explains, the less understandable the film becomes. Also consider Misha’s observation that all marketing began with Lenin; the not-so-subtle implication is that advertizing as we know it today is because of Communism, that most reliable of scapegoats when something in the world is perceived as wrong. Never mind the fact that many western industrialists of that era have also taken part in marketing campaigns. Henry Ford himself once said, “A man who stops advertising to save money is like a man who stops a clock to save time.” I can assure you that Ford was no Communist.
For all their overdramatized and nonsensical sermonizing against the evils of advertizing, Bradshaw and Dulerayn cannot escape the hypocrisy of relying on trailers and TV spots in order to spread the word about their movie. And isn’t it interesting that the trailer mentions something about a code implanted in our DNA by the very products we use? This idea was either cut from the finished film or made up by the marketing department to entice viewers. In either case, audiences are being lied to. And don’t get me started on the fact that the film takes place in Moscow and not in America, the latter location implied by the trailer. Branded is a real mess – a strange paranoid fantasy that can’t preach at us in anything other than confused ravings. This is one of the year’s worst films.