‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’
Director: Michael Winterbottom
Star: Russell Brand
1 Globe (out of 5)
Russell Brand’s triumph over Hollywood burned but brief, but while it lasted he issued one particularly killer joke. In “Get Him to the Greek,” his Aldous Snow — part lampoon of pop gods, part lampoon of himself — released the video for “African Child,” a deadly send-up of celebrities whose politics turn sanctimonious and self-serving. Cut to a few years later and Brand, who has rebranded (sorry) himself as an activist, has made “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” a right-on but in many ways miscalculated doc in which he lectures us on the rock-bottom basics of economic inequality, often while shouting inches from the camera. If it was slipped into “Greek,” few could tell the difference.
It is a noble effort, though, even if it winds up forcing us to not only question whether Brand is tolerable but also how on earth one gets the masses to care about issues that really do affect their futures. “Everything you hear in this film you already know,” Brand says as the film opens. Redundancy doesn’t equal unimportance, especially when worrying about unregulated mega-capitalism remains a controversial issue, even among the misinformed plebes. He breaks down the wealth gap, mostly in his native England but also in America, touching on corporations that weasel their way out of paying taxes, all while those on the lower castes scramble to make basic ends meet.
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But how do you make this sexy? It’s not a shallow question. Even those who get involved in activism — and especially even the relatively shortlived Occupy movement — have trouble being seen, by the plebes, as anything but pesky extremists. “The Emperor’s New Clothes” touches on many of the same issues covered in the new “The Big Short,” which at least found a possible solution: treat it as a rollicking comedy, filled with pretty faces, and which regularly pauses to stoop down and explain complex issues to us like we were idiots. It’s nothing more than sugarcoating medicine, but it’s medicine we need.
Brand is a bit more of a hard sell. He’s funnier when he’s not cranked to 11, when he’s playing off a foil. He needs a Jason Segel in “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” or a Jonah Hill in “Get Him to the Greek.” On his own he’s an overly excited ball of irritation, clearly in love with his every move and utterance. He can speak and write eloquently and powerfully about serious issues; his reports on addiction and his daily struggles with staying clean (like this one) are of utmost importance. He's less firm on economics; his knowledge seems largely gleaned from half-remembered skimmings of Noam Chomsky and Naomi Klein. “Clothes” mixes up shots of Brand screaming and gesticulating to the camera in front of a white screen with text-heavy montages out of an undergrad political philosophy major’s YouTube page. He and not-always-discerning director Michael Winterbottom (“The Trip”) even end with a remix of pol speeches that make them sound like they’re defending, not trodding upon, the common man.
Interspersed with those are him visiting the downtrodden, which is one-quarter Brand listening to them, three-quarters him blabbering and showing off. Those are better than his Michael Moore ripoff moments, when he crashes economic headquarters and films himself scrapping it up with no-nonsense security guards — a tact even Moore has by now mostly ditched. Brand’s conscience is on the right side, even if he addresses the elephant in the room — he’s one of the One Percent — with a joke rather than pointing out that that charge, usually lodged by the far right, is a cheap diversionary tactic, ultimately meant to silence those through a dodgy charge of hypocrisy. But most of the time he comes off like a real-life Nathan Barley: An idiot trying too hard to speak truth to fellow idiots. This is the kind of film that makes those who anguish over income inequality look loud, annoying and at least a little dim.
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge