Misha works as manager for an American marketing company in Moscow. His latest campaign is for a reality TV show where a slightly overweight woman volunteered to be turned into a skinny supermodel through extensive plastic surgery. Misha’s project becomes the target of a powerful adversary, though, and soon after he discovers that this is only part of an astonishing phenomenon where company brand names and symbols have taken on a strange life of their own.
Russian movies are barely noticed outside Russia, and maybe it is for that reason that the majority of the dialogues in Branded in this Russian/US co-production is done by English-speaking actors. From a plot perspective, this was not really necessary. And for a movie that puts the machinations of marketing companies into the center of its story, this may be called an almost blatant marketing attempt to increase the reach of the movie. Which is not the worst thing to be fair, as Branded is a movie that certainly deserved to be recognized also outside of Russia.
From the beginning to the end, Branded goes all in on relentless criticism of consumer marketing and its role in the capitalist economy. The first 40 minutes of the movie seem to tell a fairly conventional story, as we witness Misha’s rise and fall in the marketing business. The initial plot features some light satirical elements, and moves rather slowly. The slightly exaggerated ruthlessness put on display by big corporations trying to get their products sold at any cost as shown in the movie is certainly believable. There are some nice scenes poking fun at the infamous Moscow traffic jams, and a good satirical take on Russian female beauty standards. The movie also nonchalantly hints to the alleged CIA links of US companies operating in Russia. This could have served as another target for satirical banter, but this item is just dropped halfway through the movie.
The first half of Branded already has some absurd moments, but the second half really cranks up the weirdness level almost abruptly, and is initiated by a bizarre awakening moment for Misha. His actual or imagined clairvoyance about the true nature of product marketing is a starting point for a unique ride. The monstrous creations he starts seeing and their integration into the plot are certainly the most interesting ideas the movie brings to the table.
And while Branded takes a unique approach for its subject, and has quite a few creative ideas, it is far from being a masterpiece. The story doesn’t really have a good flow, and often feels fragmented. Especially the first half of the movie is quite a drag sometimes, any may actually trigger some people to switch off before the second crazy half kicks in. The satiric aspects are presented in a very blunt manner, the movie spends a lot of time having them literally explained in almost educational discourses of the protagonists. The actors look not overly motivated in their roles, with the exception of main actor Ed Stoppard, who convincingly portrays the different stages of main character Misha’s ordeal.
Branded is not as eloquent or refined as other satires on capitalist consumer culture such as Idiocracy and Thank You For Smoking. It still a creative movie worth a watch, and puts an interesting spotlight on the dubious role of marketing in our current society,