Branded (2012) Retro Review

I’ve been trying to figure out how to review this film for the last couple weeks. I’ve seen it. More than likely, you have not.

Let me take you back to 2012, before the Mayan Apocalypse. I saw an odd poster in my local theatre for Branded, showing familiar but skewed logos emerging from their advertisements like amorphous monsters. Seeing as how in the era of social media and online marketing brands have become so prevalent to our daily life, I was impressed by the poster’s audacity, and perhaps the audacity of the film it promised. Films that parodied the sanctity of Starbucks and Apple and McDonald’s – well, more accurately, a film – like Idiocracy were not given the warmest reception in movie houses. Idiocracy, an overlooked gem from director Mike Judge (Office Space, King of the Hill) gave our hallowed brands a most impolite drubbing and, depending on who you talk to, for this the film was taken round the back and shot. So when I happened to catch a trailer for Branded, in which brands emerged from their advertisements to suck the brains out of unsuspecting consumers and one man alone could see such horror, I was shocked. Rather than Idiocracy the film as marketed resembled a twenty-first century version of John Carpenter’s They Live (1988), a scathing indictment of yuppie culture, a high-falutin’ alien conspiracy, and the originator of Rowdy Roddy Piper’s immortal line: “I’ve come here to chew bubble gum and kick ass, and I’m all out of bubble gum.” I was skeptical but excited.

And then, nothing. The trailer came and went and I heard nothing about the film. Branded appeared in about 300 theatres in September 2012 and was quickly dispatched to video. Well, my first thought was conspiracy. But my first thought is usually conspiracy and I know better now. They taught me better in the camps.

I thought, one of two things: Either this movie is such a firebrand that mainstream theatres couldn’t handle it, or it was a bad, bad, crappy movie. The latter didn’t stop me having to watch Skyfall months after it premiered, but who knows? Maybe it was even worse than that stilted nonsense. (Sorry, The Queen’s stilted nonsense.) But lo and behold Branded shows up in my corner redbox and I didn’t feel like spending $11 on whatever The Man’s Hollywood wanted me to see, so I shook my fist and rented it.

Let me belatedly begin by saying that Branded is a clumsy film. That doesn’t make it a bad one. It’s not a good one. It’s definitely not an average one; it’s too off and too convinced it’s saying something to be average. Allow me to expound unnecessarily: Branded is much like the inebriated ramblings of you and your closest college buddies when gathered around the bong, with too many liberal arts educations burned between you, and, soaked in a lifetime of pop culture and cinematic conventions, and THC, without the inhibition to stop when you’re ahead, or stop a run-on sentence, given life by two directors in a three act structure that is really three one acts corroded by caffeine and confusion. And God help you, it has a message.

Perhaps this explains my reluctance to discuss the film earlier.

I could go into great heaving prose about the missed opportunities here, and even greater, thicker speculation about what exactly was happening while this film came together (or congealed, as seems to be the case), but I won’t because this film is much better to talk about. Only in the context of face to face conversation can you make the sounds that properly translate to watching Branded. I could try to describe the hand gestures and facial gymnastics that accompany a grunting, “Wwwuuhhh” or a melodiously trepidatious, “Eeerrhhmmm,” but written it would bely the good will I still bear the thing.

I do. It’s a mess of a film and doesn’t really qualify as a “film” but the conviction onscreen makes me feel like there’s an alternate universe where its flaws were all scrubbed away in pre-production and it went on to mean whatever it’s supposed to mean.

The film is not about creatures that emerge from advertisements and suck on people’s brains. Whether or not the creatures even exist is never clarified, but the film works better if it’s all metaphorical representation. The film is partly about what advertising can do to a culture, how it can homogenize it, how a populace can be led by the nose if the marketing works. The film is also partly about Russia, I think, and what Communism did to it, and what Capitalism is doing to it. The movie begins with a boy being hit by lightning, predicting him to become witness to odd things. He grows up to become a whiz at advertising. When the Soviet Union collapses, he is taken in by a godfather of American business (Jeffrey Tambor), who is actually an American spy.

The businessman’s daughter Abby is played by Leelee Sobieski, who looks and even acts like a young Helen Hunt, who is as committed to her character as anyone in the movie, and performs beautifully. Why, I do not know, as her motivation for falling in love with Misha (Ed Stoppard), our protagonist ad man, is left a mystery. Why her father refuses to let her get romantical with Misha is also a mystery. But romantical they do, and become producing partners for a reality TV show about giving an obese woman plastic surgery so that she can be attractive.

This dovetails (for lack of a more accurate word) into a side-plot, or maybe the main plot, with fast food executives embarking on an illegal (or immoral; the specifics of the bad thing they do are vague) operation to make fatness equal sexiness. We know this because the narrator tells us this when these executives suddenly show up in the movie. The narrator will tell us lots of things, and every time the narrator speaks we will feel less like we’re watching a movie and more like we’re watching some sort of high-budgeted educational film about…

…something something consumerism.

A series of unfortunate events befall Misha. Jeffrey Tambor dies, the reality girl goes into a coma, his career hits the skids, and Misha flees into the Russian wilderness to live like a monk/farmer for six years.

This is about halfway into the film now.

Six years later, Abby comes looking for him because they have a son. Misha performs an ancient ritual to purify himself from the taint of touching the dead (historically described in the Mishnah, see). When they get back to Moscow, he sees abstract monsters gurgling and growling all over the city, the squeamish embodiments of brand loyalty, and though his lady thinks he’s crazy, she lets him live in her apartment with her six year old son. Until Misha gets too crazy. Then she kicks him out.

The film’s third act is about Misha waging war on the brand monsters through scare mongering and competitive marketing.

You can’t see it, but I’m doing my facial gymnastics.

It might be that the film has two directors, it might be something else. The script, so far as what the characters say to each other, isn’t ambiguous, and Sobieski and Stoppard have a fair chemistry, and Stoppard even sells his soul weary ad hero character with his acting. But the cabal of company executives feels and is even filmed somewhere completely different. Also, when Misha is successful in his war the cabal’s lead guru (played by Max von Sydow) is zapped away by lightning.

Hand gestures. Hand gestures and face making.

I guarantee you any documentary that explains how this film started, what happened on set, what happened behind the camera, what happened in the marketing, will be fascinating to watch. A good portion of my unjustified fondness for this film is due to the mental puzzle it has left me with. How and why frequently pop into the thought process while viewing it, in regards to both narrative and production. However, “What did I just watch?” is not one of my questions. I watched a movie with a very patchwork shooting script, a purposefully deceptive marketing campaign, and surprisingly game actors.

It’s the cinematic equivalent of the Lemarchand configuration, and anyone willing to solve it better be prepared for all sorts of sticky consequences. That analogy may be tortuous, but now you have to wonder how and why. More coherently, I hope, than this tinpot review. Oy!

Branded (2012)
Directed by Jamie Bradshaw / Aleksandr Dulerayn
Roadside Attractions
106 Minutes

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