Are we being bamboozled? Released with minimum print ads, no review screenings, and an outrageously misleading TV trailer, this forsaken whatsit has come literally out of nowhere, and by the end of the week, that's where it will return. Normally, movies this almost purposefully nonsensical do not see the light of day in American theaters—not since the salad days of Ray Dennis Steckler drive-ins. But here it is, hawked as some kind of Inception-style sci-fi freak-out (it's not) cursed with an odd and naive conceptual amateurishness.
I don't want to make Branded sound interesting—which it kinda is, like a waiter dropping a big bowl of tomato soup near a patron dressed in white linen. The plot: Misha (Ed "Tom's son" Stoppard) is a marketing genius in the new Russia, employed by Jeffrey Tambor's eccentric ad king to push American brands in the new market, and helping boss's daughter Leelee Sobieski to produce a plastic surgery reality show, a process manipulated (offscreen, like almost everything) by Max von Sydow's branding mega-guru (living, a title tells us, on a "private Polynesian island"), whose mission it is to save the world's fast-food empires by making "fat" fabulous. But a confluence of debacles sends a disillusioned Stoppard into the wilderness, where his dreams command him to burn a red cow on a bonfire, a ritual that enables him to "see" giant looming digital monster-shapes writhing out of people's necks, the result of hamburger gluttony and "branding." There's almost a Seussian vibe in this heap, but no hint that it's intentional.
"I really do see creatures on you!" is a typical line. Paced like an underwater dream, with whole scenes played out in traffic jams and spelled out by lugubrious narration, Branded has ideas, but unfortunately, the ideas are reeking batshit nuts, especially once the cheaply animated "brand" monsters, which might not actually exist, start flying around like Ghostbusters mistakes biting one another. You've been warned. Michael Atkinson
Get the Film & TV Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.