Guest Movie Review: Branded
Why is it we love the brand-name things we do? Pepsi over Coca-Cola? Apple over Microsoft? McDonald’s over Burger King? Often, it’s not the actual quality of the product that dictates our appreciation for certain brands, but in fact what we are told are the better options. Advertising and marketing are extremely pervasive business tools, infiltrating almost every part of our lives. You see them in between the action at sporting events. They’re in the magazines and newspapers you read. They interrupt the best parts of your favorite television shows. They’re in banners on most reputable (and perhaps less-than-reputable) websites. And now, with the growing popularity of smart phones and tablets, they’re with you even while you’re out and about. When I opened the Fandango app on my phone today, what should pop up but an ad to go see The Words, which had been released this past weekend? Advertising reaches even where teo buck stops: the supporters of Presidential candidates spend millions of dollars for the expressed purpose of getting their message across to the public.
This isn’t to say that people are necessarily stupid or gullible. When Universal Pictures advertised the board game-inspired Battleship as “from Hasbro, the company that brought you Transformers,” it was a conscious decision on their part to connect an unproven idea to a popular, successful one. And yet people were smart enough to think for themselves and go see something else. But even so, marketing can plant the seed. Even those who claim to be smart enough to avoid falling into such traps can be affected, maybe so subtly they don’t even notice. After all, you’re probably familiar with Kentucky Fried Chicken, Little Caesar’s Pizza, and Sonics even if there were none near you, or you indeed haven’t been to one before.
But although businesses use marketing and advertising to get consumers to desire their products, what if they were to go too far? Unethical business practices are hardly unheard of: companies go head-to-head with their competitors, with the hard-earned incomes of you in me in between. What if these companies were willing to go beyond the boundaries of the law? What if they could and would actually hurt people if it meant helping their bottom line? And what if they used marketing and branding to do it? That’s the question behind Branded, the Russian/American sci-fi film written and directed by Jamie Bradshaw and Aleksandr Dulerayn. In a dystopian near-future in which you can’t walk down the streets without seeing an ad for something, ad-man Misha Galkin (Ed Stoppard) is the best of the best. He’s widely recognized for his work in the industry, he’s got the love of his boss’ niece, Abby (Leelee Sobieski), and life for the most part is good. But when the fast food companies start to trend downward due to public desire for thinness, they hire a renowned marketing guru (Max von Sydow) to turn around their fortunes. His methods change the course of the world, and when Misha discovers how much marketing can control us – that it’s turned into something that can actually hurt people – he resolves to do whatever he can to put a stop to it.
It’s obvious that Bradshaw and Dulerayn are intimately familiar with marketing and advertising as it applies to big business. Throughout Branded, the pair expresses their knowledge about how the industry rose, how powerful the idea of suggestion can be, and how companies use it to gain every advantage they can. Setting the film in Moscow was an inspired move, as the filmmakers attribute the first marketing effort to Vladimir Lenin, who had to sell the ideas of Marxism and Communism to an entire nation and convince them to follow his rule. And setting Misha’s life squarely within the context of the fall of Soviet Russia (and the viable economic hub it’s become) was also a strong choice, showing how much difference Western influence had on the nation in just a short period of time (although this also has the downside of making the movie feel distinctly anti-American). With the sheer volume of money that marketing brings in, it’s obvious that the directors wanted to bring out that worst-case scenario to put the scare on us as to how unscrupulous the industry can be even at the best of times.
Unfortunately, these excellent ideas are thrown into the maw of some of the worst cinematic work I’ve seen this decade. Bradshaw and Dulerayn have little experience in the feature film market, but they’re worse than mere rookies – they’re completely unable to produce anything resembling a thought or insight. While their marketing research was spot-on, the rest was a complete miss, with such egregious errors as telling rather than showing, erratic and unnecessary voiceovers, do-nothing scenes, illogical plot progression, numerous false endings, and thoroughly inconsistent characters. While there are some worthwhile early scenes, the whole thing quickly devolves into a turgid pile, completely missing all the complicated lessons of Filmmaking 101. How such a miserable product could be completed and shoved out the door is a mystery. Not such a mystery? Why it was released to only about 300 theaters around the country.
But Branded’s biggest problem – it’s most ironic issue – is that the film itself pales in the face of false advertising. Going in to see this, I was sure I would be watching a movie in which some sort of supernatural forces (aliens or demons or something) were behind the marketing all around the world, and that the Big Reveal was that the conspiracy to dominate the world via advertising was not the work of man, but something unnatural. Look at the movie poster and watch the trailers and tell me that’s not the impression you get. But not only is the conspiracy completely human, but the monsters themselves are simply avatars of our desires existing only in Misha’s warped psyche. They also only appear in the film’s last act, meaning that most of the movie doesn’t even really showcase the creatures that might have drawn you out of your way to see this in the first place.
Character is key to any successful film, but Branded doesn’t even have the cast to keep things remotely interesting. Max von Sydow is fresh off of his Oscar nomination for Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, and he’s easily the film’s biggest star. But his is just a small role, with no interaction with the leads. What he does do is chew up a few scenes and impart wisdom that reveals a lot about how marketing works, which unfortunately doesn’t amount to a whole lot. The rest are really no better, and Ed Stoppard is the worst, with his clichéd character who starts out kind of slimy and turns into something resembling a good man. He acts (and at times looks) like a poor man’s Sharlto Copley, but without any of the prerequisite charm necessary to make that work. And if you had and question as to why Leelee Sobieski hadn’t become a star after seemingly breaking out over a decade ago, Branded provides your answer. With a dry, uninspired performance, the real question might be: why does she still act at all? Only Jeffrey Tambor gives anything resembling a good day’s work as Misha’s boss, and he is unfortunately kicked to the curb far too soon to be very effective. In all, the problem with the actors is really an extension of the rest of the movie: there just wasn’t enough thought put into the whole process.
There is no question that marketing and advertising have their hooks in us. Every day, we make decisions based on it. Sure, those decisions usually involve what we buy at the grocery store or what to eat for lunch or where to shop for that shirt you need for work. But a few are bigger. Just look at the market for nonprescription drugs. How do you know about them? Advertising, of course. There are some decisions that can still be made without it; I don’t think marketing and advertising have a domineering control of our lives. But what if they did? What if the marketing industry became so big, so out of control, that the abundance of choice really resulted in no choice at all? That’s the question that Bradshaw and Dulerayn attempted to answer, and it’s unfortunate that they’re not up to it. Branded would have been better served by a steadier hand, one that could have taken the ideas and reined in the extraneous details. I do give the filmmakers credit for sticking to their guns and not signing on with corporate sponsors, practically creating this whole thing from scratch, clunky and incomplete as it is. But Branded needed quality, something to differentiate it from the mass of mediocre films that have dominated 2012, and that’s the one thing it doesn’t have.
John C. Anderson is a freelance writer, movie enthusiast and Foursquare Mayor living in Boston. To see his latest movie reviews, check out Hello, Mr. Anderson.