In the future, mega-corporations and their tentacular marketing machines will control our very souls and leave us with the illusion of free will and happiness while, in reality, dumbing us six-feet down and turning us all into fixed-grin, thousand-yard-staring consumer robots. Oh, wait, my bad: I tuned into Fox News there for a moment. That scenario actually is our shared reality and Branded is a fictional, futuristic, dystopic sci-fi picture filmed in Russia and Bulgaria. While topically interesting and completely in line with offline thinking, Branded is a truly bewildering film with pretenses of social commentary. The film is an ingenious, deranged, bloated, and just plain batshit crazy riff on advertising and the mad men and women it creates and/or consumes. Heady stuff, but it's no How to Get Ahead in Advertising. This film is absolutely mental, and not in a good way, either.
Various attempts to describe the plot have been giving me a migraine for almost an hour, and now I have black tears cascading down my face and turning into tiny red cows as they patter onto the keyboard of my MacBook. But hey, whaddaya know, that's a pretty accurate evocation of the surreal style and tone of Branded, which plays like a lesser William S. Burroughs work as directed by Uwe Boll at age 16. I realize that sounds like it might be pretty freaking awesome, but it doesn't pan out. Branded is all about ambitious overreach that never coheres into cinematic sensibility. I'll give the filmmakers an A for their flailing attempts at transgression, but the film is ultimately a total shambles.
Stoppard is Misha, a Moscow marketing whiz and underling to Tambor's manic, American spy boss, Bob. In this madcap future world, Max von Sydow is a fast-food god/man/kingmaker who literally rules the world through burgers. Misha ends up in the Muscovite woods where he must slaughter a magical crimson cow before he and girlfriend Abby can return to do battle with the invisible parasites that drive us to consume ever more. Did I mention there's a giant star cow? No? Again, sorry, but my brain just exploded and I have this mad urge to unfurl the United Colors of Benetton while noshing on Soylent Greenburgers and wishing I'd watched John Carpenter's They Live – or even Larry Cohen's The Stuff – instead of this deeply flawed (yet strangely compelling) pseudo-satire.