Truly Terrible

'Branded' is an epically awful film about marketing ... or something like that

At a critical juncture in Branded, an imaginary dragon, representing a healthy vegetarian fast-food restaurant, emerges from its egg and attacks the imaginary amorphous clowns that represent a leading burger chain. Roughly 15 minutes before that, a cow was slaughtered by a marketing whiz-kid as part of a ritual sacrifice.

Welcome to the imaginations of filmmakers Jamie Bradshaw and Aleksandr Dulerayn.

Bradshaw and Dulerayn have chosen to critique the invasive role of marketing through a movie so boundlessly absurd and ridiculous that any point they try to make is completely obscured by their inability to construct a cohesive or even competent motion picture.

The action begins exactly where you'd expect a movie about marketing to begin: Moscow. Didn't you know that it's the center of the advertising world? Sure, since the fall of communism, there's plenty of commercialism and consumerism in the former Soviet Union, but would anyone believe that the heartbeat of marketing is a few doors down from the Kremlin? Misha (Ed Stoppard) assures us that it is.

He tells his girlfriend, Abby (Leelee Sobieski), that Lenin created the first "superbrand"—Soviet communism—and he then explains it in such a way that any previous school of thought with enough adherents could have also created the first superbrand, be it Christianity or Kamehameha. In essence, Misha argues, anything people bow to and bend to is the result of great marketing.

Together, Misha and Abby are producing a reality TV series that transforms fat housewives into beauty queens through a regimen of plastic surgeries. When there's trouble in the operating room, all of Russia blames the producers of the show, and Misha vows never to use his marketing skills again.

Meanwhile, a wizened marketing ace (oh, poor Max von Sydow) has been hired by the fast-food titans to shore up their flagging business and pick up on the new body consciousness. His solution is to convince consumers that fat is the new fabulous. If people find fat sexy, fast-food profits will increase.

Remember the slaughtered cow? Here's how it fits in: Misha, who did the only logical thing when he left marketing and became a shepherd, is troubled one night by a dream. As a result, he builds a weird wooden temple, leads a cow to its ultimate demise, and dumps its blood over his head. This cleansing allows him to see things nobody else can see, and to solve a problem nobody else even realizes is a problem. OK, then.

Fueled by cow blood, Misha can now see things like the dragon and the shapeless clowns hovering around anyone's head that let him visualize what fuels their impulses and desires. If you haven't had a burger in a couple of days, the hovering clown grows larger; eat a burger, and it shrinks. And with his new X-ray powers, Misha sees that marketing is the problem, not the solution. And the only way to effectively battle marketing and make the world whole again is to ... wait for it ... market something else instead, hence the dragon ushering in a new era of healthy alternatives to fast food. So if you're keeping score, marketing is now both the problem and the solution.

To be sure, marketing is at something of a cultural tipping point. Targeted ads follow you wherever you go on the Internet, reminding you of a site you've visited in the past. Companies send you text messages about upcoming promotions. NBA jerseys will feature corporate logos next season. The next Amazon Kindle will load ads to your tablet's home screen unless you pay to not have them. None of these marketing channels existed 15 years ago. The prescient use of marketing messages in Steven Spielberg's Minority Report was not too far off: We're entering an era where ads can be closely tailored to your specific wants and needs. So the ground covered in Branded is absolutely worth investigation. But like this?

As cinematic tests of endurance go, Branded is in the same gold-medal qualifying round as the Nicolas Cage remake of The Wicker Man: It's excruciating, but in the same rubbernecking tradition of that gem, you almost have to see it to fully appreciate the suckage.

The low-budget seams are visible throughout, which raises the question of why Bradshaw and Dulerayn—also producers—made a film that requires a large budget to be effective, to say nothing of why they made a film about marketing that involves a pivotal animal sacrifice. All the while, a disquietingly mechanical narrator (she sounds like Siri's more-outgoing sister) covers steep chasms in the storytelling that would simply be unanswered questions otherwise. Maybe the directors found just the right number of unanswered questions and didn't want to overdo it.

If you're a connoisseur of truly awful films, bon appetit.

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