Branded movie review
Advertising is evil, the world is manipulating you, and corporate greed is a parasitic beast. Movies have dealt with these concepts in subtler ways, but Branded isn't exactly concerned with subtlety. The brash concept of portraying consumerism as warped CG beasts is about as loud as messaging in a film can get. But hey, brashness can be fun and clever too when done right.
Unfortunately, Branded may be one of the most schizophrenic movies I've ever seen. Misha (Ed Stoppard) is a Russian ad man, a sort of Don Draper of Moscow, who finds himself falling for Abby Gibbons (Leelee Sobieski), the daughter of his employer, Bob Gibbons, played by the always wonderful Jeffrey Tambor. Bob insists he stays away from Abby, but Misha isn't the kind of person to avoid what he wants.
When a reality show concept goes wrong for Misha and Abby, they find themselves out of a job and worse. When Abby assures him that, while he no longer has money, he still has her, he responds that he's going to find a way to have both. I was never quite convinced that Misha loved Abby as much as he wanted to possess her in the same way he possesses money and success.
We are shown a scheme by another group of advertisers to make obesity cool and manipulate the world into buying more fast food. It's a cynical scheme that could probably happen in the real world, but if you've seen the trailer you know the CG beasts are coming.
An unexpected turn halfway through the movie shows Misha escaping the city to herd cattle. Eventually he dreams instructions for a cleansing ritual involving the slaughter of a cow and decides to follow through with it. This isn't the same character the audience is first introduced to, and as the movie progresses the rug is continuously pulled away.
The ritual allows Misha to see the world for what it is. Advertising creates unseen parasites that feed on peoples' desires. We want to eat at "The Burger" because the parasite wants us to. But no one believes him, not even Abby, who suggests he goes to a doctor. Is he crazy? That seems to be the more logical explanation even when the plot suggests otherwise.
From Misha's ritual through to the end of Branded, it seems to take on a very different quality from the first act. I almost got the sense that the writers of the film wrote a solid first act to trick their cast into following through to the end. When Jeffrey Tambor smartly makes his escape the rest of the film seems to go to hell.
And not to say that they couldn't pull off such a diverging plot and strange finale, but the sudden turn is a bit shocking. Line delivery goes out the window, with the same actors that were perfectly fine earlier in the film delivering dialogue as if they were in a remake of The Room. It's as if they suddenly realized what they were filming was incredible stupid and just gave up. Then there's the CG effects that flicker and glitch as if unfinished. Bad CG was one hurdle I was willing to take, but I didn't think it would be so broken.
That the strange parasites amount to nothing but blatant symbolism only makes the lazy preaching on the evil of advertising even worse. A deft hand could have made something clever out of this. I had suspected something along the lines of John Carpenter's They Live. But that film, which featured a ten minute street brawl between Rowdy Roddy Piper and Keith David, seems subtle and thoughtful in comparison.
For all its blatant preachiness, Branded is never quite clear on what it wants to say. It toys with messages of veganism like a teenager going through a phase. In the end we are shown a world without advertising, which just happens to be regular shots of Moscow without all the advertising the film inserted in the first place.
A promising opening act is nothing compared to the sabotage that takes place before the end. This was never going to be a subtle film, but I never suspected it would go so wrong. Advertising can be bad, but so is Branded, so what's the message in that?