The singularly insane Branded is a case study in good intentions gone astray

The singularly insane Branded is a case study in good intentions gone astray

Dispatches From Direct-To-DVD Purgatory is a periodic check-in on what’s going on in the world of movies that didn’t make it to theaters.

It is an open secret that, despite its title, Dispatches From Direct-To-DVD Purgatory does not exclusively feature motion pictures that skipped theaters altogether en route to history’s dustbin. Many of the films I’ve written about here received at least a token domestic theatrical release. The only real criteria for including a film here is that we have not covered it at The A.V Club. So I praised the heavens that we did not review 2012’s Branded when it quietly played in a little more than three hundred theaters last year. For Branded is a true gift from the bad-movie gods, a film so ineffably, surreally awful that I fear that delineating the extent of its mind-boggling miscalculation is beyond my powers. I have devoted much of my professional life to the study of failed film, yet I fear that Branded is a film so insane it defeated me. 

Branded wastes no time getting straight to the crazy. The film opens with the names of Joan Of Arc, Socrates, Sigmund Freud, and other revered historical icons flashing provocatively onscreen against the dramatic crackle of lightning in the distance before we’re informed that the giants listed all shared the following qualities:

  • All of these unusual people heard a voice.
  • All of them saw things others couldn’t see.
  • All of them changed the world. 

We then flash to Moscow in the early ’80s, where the boyhood version of the film’s protagonist—an unusual person who heard a voice, saw things others couldn’t, and would go on to change the world—is lying awake at night on a park bench staring up at the night sky before he sees a cluster of stars dramatically take the shape of a cow’s head and moo. The boy then wakes up to discover that his number in line has been called. The boy rushes to the head of the line in a panic but is struck by lightning. At that point an old woman looks at the boy and tells him, “Well young man, you’re going to have a very unusual life.” That, friends, is what we in the word business like to call “understatement.”

We then skip ahead to modern-day Russia, where the unusual boy destined for a very unusual life has grown up to be Ed Stoppard (son of legendary playwright Tom), a model-handsome advertising wiz and the protégé of a legendary adman played by Jeffrey Tambor, who sternly advises Stoppard to stay the hell away from his young and impressionable niece, Leelee Sobieski. 

We then continue our merry travails across space and time on a private Polynesian island where a robotic-voiced narrator informs us that “the world’s leading specialist on marketing” (played by Max Von Sydow) is meeting with representatives of the world’s top fast-food chains to discuss a steep decline in profits. 

“I want to talk today about love. I have struggled to find a way to restore the people’s love of your products. But it hasn’t worked out. Consumers just no longer wish to buy them. When it’s over, it’s over. They don’t love you. The era of fast food has passed. But I do have a proposal, something which exceeds the limits of marketing in its conventional form, a plan that will change the world. Together we will make fat beautiful again.” Sydow declaims theatrically, lustily masticating every last morsel of overwritten verbiage. 

But first, Sydow wants to know how far these titans of industry, these monarchs of processed meat, will go for money. The fast-food mavens meekly assert that they’ll do whatever it takes within the limits of the law, but that isn’t quite good enough for Sydow. Why bother to hatch an evil global conspiracy unless your collaborators are willing to go all the way with it? 

Sydow’s plan is approved, but only in what the narrator describes as the Third World realm of Kenya, Brazil, and Russia, where our very unusual hero and Sobieski both happen to live. Back in Moscow, Sobieski calls Stoppard up and hops into his car for a cruise, where she insists on buckling her safety belt. “It’s amazing how you Americans all believe in seatbelts,” Stoppard observes as Sobieski buckles up. This prompts Sobieski to reply, “In America, they advertise them very well.” 

In any other film, that would qualify as nothing more than egregiously awkward throwaway banter. In Branded, that’s damn near the film’s defining line. Branded is many things. Hell, there are moments of the film when I was convinced Branded was everything. But above all else, Branded is an anti-branding, anti-advertising jeremiad. If you were to lobotomize Richard Linklater’s Fast Food Nation, then dose it with bad acid, then trick it into an ideologically confused, bewildering act of procreation with Atlas Shrugged while No Logo masturbated awkwardly nearby, you wouldn’t quite have Branded, but you’d be headed in the right direction. 

Sobieski and Stoppard collaborate on an extreme-makeover reality show where an overweight woman undergoes cosmetic surgery in order to fit into society’s narrow conception of beauty. But before she can undergo a reality-television-engineered transformation from ugly duckling to swan, she lapses into a coma that quickly becomes international news and sparks a massive global backlash against the media for glamorizing unhealthy, unrealistic, and ultimately dangerous images of beauty. 

When a model dies of anorexia not long afterward, it’s enough to make the entire world rise up against these sexist and oppressive images and embrace their antithesis—proud, unapologetic corpulence—as the new beauty ideal. To borrow Sydow’s words, the marketers have succeeded in making “fat the new fabulous,” and advertising is eventually inundated with images of the massively overweight. 

Branded imagines a world where advertising is such an all-powerful, all-consuming force that it trumps conventional notions of health and aesthetic beauty. That’s the essence of the film’s hopelessly muddled, malfunctioning satire, but in its incoherent zeal to score points at the expense of advertising, the film ends up depicting the overweight as easily manipulated sheep who will mindlessly consume whatever is placed in front of them. And since women are disproportionately affected by our culture’s impossible beauty standards, the fat-as-advertising-cancer premise ends up feeling both size-ist and sexist. Seldom have good intentions gone so dramatically astray. 

Stoppard becomes the scapegoat for the reality show’s failure and, in a bid to cleanse himself spiritually, leaves the hustle and bustle of Moscow to become a cow-herder in the country for six years of penance and self-discovery. It is at this point that Branded gets a little odd. In a ritual of crazed self-purification, Stoppard sacrifices a red cow (or dreams of sacrificing a red cow) and bathes in its ashes. 

From this point forward, Stoppard has the supernatural ability to see amorphous, Cronenbergian, tentacled monsters—representing brand desire rendered flesh—everywhere he goes. Stoppard learns that Sobieski has a chubby little 6-year-old son (fathered by Stoppard) who’s followed everywhere by the slimy tentacles of “The Burger,” the film’s version of McDonald’s. 

In what, astonishingly, only qualifies as the 10th or so craziest development in Branded, Stoppard rebels noisily and pointlessly against the dictates of the ruling fatocracy and empties the contents of Sobieski’s refrigerator onto the ground in a righteous, fat-hating frenzy. Stoppard tries to explain the truth to Sobieski, but it’s more than her mind can handle, man! 

Stoppard then figures out how he can singlehandedly defeat the Brand Menace. He gets a job working for the representatives of a Japanese vegetarian fast-food chain that, in keeping with the film’s glaring insensitivity regarding anything but branding, are depicted as glowering, greedy, stone-faced thugs. 

Our intrepid hero makes a fortune for the vegetarian food chain by convincing the public—those easily led fools!—that eating meat is inherently unhealthy and can lead to a deadly affliction very much like Mad Cow disease. In the world of Branded, people will believe anything. The film is dedicated to the proposition that you can fool all the people all the time. So once the public suspects meat might be unhealthy, it isn’t long until the entire meat-based fast-food industry has toppled and vegetarianism is rampant. 

Stoppard figures out that he can wipe out brands more effectively and efficiently by pitting them against each other, and before long, Moscow has been become an advertising and brand-free utopia devoid of shiny images of beautiful people and important products. This is supposed to be a beautiful leftist dream. Instead, it looks pretty goddamned dreary. There was a name for a Russia uncorrupted by the influence of global brands and Western-style advertising: It was called the Soviet Union, and at the risk of being controversial, it didn’t work out that great, nor did it make all of its citizens happy. 

The only way Branded could have redeemed itself would have been with the climactic reveal that everything we’ve just seen was the crazy, shitty dream of an Adbusters editor. Instead, Branded ends as it must: with the reveal that the robotic-sounding narrator we’ve been listening to throughout the film is in fact the cow’s-head constellation Stoppard saw in the first scene. In any other film, that would qualify as the crowning touch of batshit insanity; here, it’s pretty much par for the course. 

Branded really is the flipside to Atlas Shrugged. Both projects crudely combine incoherent ideology with amateur storytelling, bad ideas with the bleary, disorienting pixels of bad special effects cheaply rendered. Though it aspires to be a crowd-pleasing work of lefty populism, Branded depicts the masses as brainless conformists powerless before the hypnotic force of advertising. I agree with Branded for the most part ideologically, and I still found it as appalling as Atlas Shrugged.

Branded is a weirdly misanthropic romp that is 10 crazy bad movies in a ridiculously overstuffed lollapalooza of a doozy. It changes shape and genre radically from scene to scene and moment to moment. Is Branded ultimately a portentous, symbolism-riddled allegory, or a mood piece about contemporary alienation? Is it a Donnie Darko-like mindfuck, a broad comic satire, or leftist agitprop? Is it Michael Moore, Ralph Nader, or Philip K. Dick? In keeping with its kitchen-sink, maximalist approach, it’s all of the above and much, much more. I have seen some crazy shit in my time, and this flabbergasted even me. 

Great science fiction makes the fantastical real. It lends a sense of urgency, gravity, and verisimilitude to out-there conceits. Branded accomplishes the opposite. It takes something all too real—our advertising-, capital-, and image-obsessed world—and makes it seem too implausible and far-fetched even for science fiction. 

Just how bad is it? It’s such a thorough mindfuck that conventional notions of good and bad don’t really apply. 

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