The movie begins with a screen full of the names of famous, influential thinkers, with accompanying text that says something about how they all heard voices that others could not hear, ending with a screen that says, “All of them changed the world.” Uh. Okay. But the trailers had monsters, right? We then watch a brief scene where a young boy in Russian named Misha looks to the starry night sky and sees some kind of cow god staring back at him. Then he’s struck by lightning. We then flash forward to him today – as a young man (Ed Stoppard, son of playwright Tom Stoppard) working as a marketing guru in Moscow. He is also, we realize, some kind of spy for the United States government, under his boss and handler Bob (Jeffrey Tambor). When he’s denied a promotion, he embarks on creating a new reality show with the help of Tambor’s foxy niece Abby (Leelee Sobieski). It’s an extreme makeover show where an overweight girl is transformed, surgically, into an ideal of western beauty. It can’t go wrong!
When the finale of the reality show garners blockbuster ratings but lands the contestant in a coma, Misha is arrested, Bob dies of a heart attack, and Abby is exiled back to America. Apparently this was all part of Max von Sydow’s grand plan to make being fat cool again. “We’re going to make fat fabulous,” the genuine screen legend sneers at one point, and you just feel embarrassed for him. Swearing off all corporate iconography, Misha goes to become a shepherd in the Russian countryside, which is where Abby retrieves him six years later. After the two reconnect, she leaves, unimpressed with his “rustic” lifestyle but still desperate to get him to return to Moscow.
After she leaves he has a vision and for the next fifteen minutes or so, the movie diverges into some really crazy psychedelic cult shit, with him constructing a funeral pyre, pinpointing a red cow (through some wacky mystical process and very questionable visual effects), killing that cow, and bathing in both its blood and the ashes from the post-pyre mess. He then promptly collapses, which gives Abby permission to drag his unconscious body back to Moscow. Because this is how it works in Russia!
When the crazy monsters start to show up, though, the movie falls apart altogether. If you can’t tell already, the movie borrows liberally, not only from “The Matrix” and “Mad Men” but from John Carpenter’s “They Live,” William Gibson’s novel “Pattern Recognition,” that Halloween episode of “The Simpsons” where all the billboards come to life, and, when Misha starts pitting the different advertising monsters against one another, the old “Godzilla” movies. It’s just by this point, when you see a giant Coca-Cola-type bottle transformer into a hulking, robotic beast, you’re wondering what the point is, exactly. Is all of this stuff actually happening? Or is inside our hero’s mind? Is the conflict literal or existential? Either way, it’s poorly choreographed and staged and the creature design is pretty bargain basement (although we did like the carnivorous spore that looks just enough like the Microsoft logo). By this point, too, the movie has introduced a mob of anti-advertising zealots, a mysterious mad cow-type disease, and, oh yeah, Max von Sydow gets struck by lighting and disappears.
Jamie Bradshaw and Aleksandr Dulerayn wrote, directed, and produced the movie, and you have to think that they might have a better understanding of what’s going on than we, the audience, does. But it’s hard to muster up the energy to care. They seem to want to employ the same tactics of marketing to their movie – the screen is always lousy with extraneous text and title cards, and the frame of the movie sometimes contracts to a square 4:3 dimension, for no apparent reason. You’ve got to give them credit for ambition, but execution is just as important (by the end of the movie though, you find out who the narrator is – spoiler alert – it’s the starry cow god from the prologue! Of course!) And while, if this was a South Korean movie that someone slipped into our hands and said, “You’ve got to see it, the logos come to life!” we would probably be more forgiving, this isn’t some South Korean movie - it’s a fairly major international coproduction that also happens to be a sexless, humorless, suspense-free bore. Whatever “Branded” is selling, we aren’t buying. [D-]