This Russian-made movie is utterly terrible, but you might want to catch it during the few days it lingers in theatres because it bids well to become that rarity, a true camp classic, the sort of thing that’s so unintentionally bad that audiences might someday fill midnight screenings to hoot derisively as the risible dialogue, atrocious acting and idiotic plot turns accumulate on the screen. With “Branded” we’re in authentic Ed Wood territory—not the realm of the Tim Burton biopic, unfortunately, but that of “Glen or Glenda” and “Plan 9 From Outer Space.” Writer-directors Jamie Bradshaw and Alexander Doulerain think they have something important to say, but their execution is so inept that it turns their message into a subject of derision. The only way to salvage the movie at all would be to argue that it’s intended as a satire of the advertising game, or a parody of excruciatingly awful filmmaking; but few people are likely to buy either argument.
The “socially significant” target of the makers is advertising—which would seem to forecast an anti-capitalist screed on the part of the Russian makers, except that they try to have it both ways by quickly identifying Lenin, or all people, as the founder of the art. Anyway, when purveyors of fast-food chains find their burger sales dwindling, they turn to the supposed world guru of marketing (Max von Sydow, looking feeble but bemused by the nonsense he must spout) for help. He suggests an outrageous scheme—to change public attitudes on beauty, convincing people that thin is ugly and fat beautiful. He arranges a Russian “reality” show in which a chubby girl undergoes surgery to get thin, then arranges for the operation to go wrong and land her in a coma—something that enrages the fickle populace. The ploy leads to the incarceration of Misha Galkin (wooden Ed Stoppard), the Russian ad exec who was the front man in promoting the show, and to the lemming-like citizens scarfing down burgers and growing to porcine size. It also breaks up Misha’s relationship with Abby Gibbons (Leelee Sobieski), the daughter of Misha’s American boss Bob (Jeffrey Tambor, grotesquely overdoing it), who recruited the Russki partially for CIA-related spy purposes.
A lot of extraneous soap-opera absurdity follows involving Misha, Abby and their child, but the main thread is that Misha goes rustic and eventually undergoes a weird “ancient” ritual having something to do with a red cow (!) that enables him to “see,” in the form of bulbous creatures fashioned by really awful sci-fi effects, the desires implanted in people by marketing folk. (What these things most resemble are balloons rightly rejected from the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade.) That leads him to attempt to destroy those entities driving hamburger consumption—by adopting a similar tactic to von Sydow’s, convincing the populace, via advertising, that the consumption of beef is dangerous in order to bolster a vegetarian restaurant chain that’s his client. But his purpose is broader than that: he aims to annihilate all such advertising-driven popular desires—and the brands they represent—by adopting similarly destructive means. So successful is he that for some inexplicable reason the process causes poor old von Sydow to be literally evaporated by a lightning strike! And it leads to the Russian president—who looks like the Pillsbury Doughboy—announcing a ban on all advertising.
Though it might have been inspired by Sao Paolo’s billboard ban, this scenario is ludicrous. Still, it’s played straight, with some sequences (like Misha’s ritual, or the one in which he destroys a kitchen in a “Citizen Kane”-style rampage) so outrageously earnest and poorly staged that it’s impossible to watch them without bursting out laughing. And the fact that it’s narrated by a constellation that takes the form of an animated cow (though not, it should be noted, a red one) makes it all the more absurd. All the acting is wretched, but Sobieski looks particularly lost reciting her dismal lines. Things aren’t helped by hapless editing (ascribed to one Michael Blackburn) that desperately tries to paper over the lack of proper transitions between the various plot threads. And the effects look worse than what one encounters in old Power Rangers and Ninja Turtle movies.
The final irony is that Roadside Attractions has been marketing this monstrosity as a “Matrix”-like tale of individualism versus authority. Maybe that’s a clever ploy to engender such fury in viewers of the misleading trailer that they’ll mount a campaign to demand the end of all television blurbs for movies. But the number of people who go see this picture will probably be far too small to rouse any sort of movement. “Branded” is the worst of the worst, but serious connoisseurs of le bad cinema shouldn’t pass it up.