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Russell Brand Goes Big And Loud On The Economy

Russell Brand in a scene from <em>The Emperor's New Clothes</em>.
Courtesy of StudioCanal and IFC Films
Russell Brand in a scene from The Emperor's New Clothes.

The worst part of Michael Moore's landmark documentary Roger & Me is Roger and me, because it's an act of pure political theater. Donning what would become his signature working-class costume — rumpled button-down shirt, blue jeans, tennis shoes, ballcap — Moore ambles into General Motors headquarters, requesting a meeting with CEO Roger Smith. He doesn't have an appointment. He never gets past the lobby. There's no reasonable expectation that he'll ever get close to his white whale, let alone interrogate him about plant closings in Moore's hometown of Flint, Mich. The only people who really squirm in this scenario are the security guards and the other GM wage slaves tasked with hustling him out of the building.

More than 25 years later, British comedian, actor and political gadfly Russell Brand gives Moore's man-of-the-people routine a whirl with The Emperor's New Clothes, a grueling piece of agitprop about income inequality in the U.K. and beyond. And here again, Brand ambles into big banks to harass security over rich CEOs and at one point badgers a housekeeper over telecom about her boss tucking money away overseas. The message here, as in Roger & Me, is that the wealthy few are inaccessible, hiding in some ivory tower where they cannot be held accountable for their misdeeds. But the reality is, a few members of the embattled "99 percent" have to endure a tired stunt by the man ostensibly representing their interests.

American audiences know Brand mainly as the lovably daft rocker in Forgetting Sarah Marshall and its spin-off/sequel Get Him to the Greek — if not his brief marriage to pop star Katy Perry or his late-night talk show Brand X — but his interest in commentary and political activism has altered his profile in Britain. Directed by Michael Winterbottom (The Trip), The Emperor's New Clothes is a freewheeling editorial of the Moore school, built around a figure with nary a fraction of Moore's soul, empathy and wit. All that's left are the cheap tactics: staged scenes of public protest, damning snippets of the tone-deaf elite, interviews where Brand nods his head solemnly at the afflicted, and, finally, a series of pie-in-the-sky policy suggestions.

Opening with Brand telling the Hans Christian Andersen story of the title — during which Winterbottom supplies crude footage of a pompous royal — The Emperor's New Clothes then proceeds to hammer a system that continues to benefit the rich at the poor's expense. Brand traces the current wage inequality to the free market fundamentalism of economist Milton Friedman, whose policies of low taxes and small government were adopted by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. From there, Brand jumps ahead to the housing collapse of 2008, which he ties directly to the regulatory lapses of Friedman acolytes and unchecked corporate greed they accommodated. "Everything you're going to hear about, you already know," warns Brand in the narration. PolitiFact would rate that statement as unambiguously "True."

Part of the hook for The Emperor's New Clothes is that Brand is an entertainer, so audiences might expect a spoonful of sugar to make the medicine go down. But Brand is a hectoring irritant throughout the film, a walking info dump who occasionally makes a spectacle of himself for the camera. To illustrate his points on the wage gap, he gathers schoolchildren to represent the stagnant salaries of the working- and middle-class — "Unfair!" they scream — and has 80 people masked as the world's richest billionaires wander around a slum. He doesn't carry himself lightly.

Brand lands on firmer ground when he witnesses the changing face of his Grays, Essex hometown, which he remembers as a modest but thriving community of quality jobs and small businesses, but which has recently been transformed into a hellscape of betting parlors and check-cashing places. But a liberal jeremiad of this breadth doesn't have much time for specifics; Brand and Winterbottom only settle on one person or place for a few minutes before finding another case study to support their larger argument. The Emperor's New Clothes isn't a documentary so much as a call to action, with Brand offering himself as the scruffy face of the revolution. Good luck with that.

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Scott Tobias is the film editor of The A.V. Club, the arts and entertainment section of The Onion, where he's worked as a staff writer for over a decade. His reviews have also appeared in Time Out New York, City Pages, The Village Voice, The Nashville Scene, and The Hollywood Reporter. Along with other members of the A.V. Club staff, he co-authored the 2002 interview anthology The Tenacity Of the Cockroach and the new book Inventory, a collection of pop-culture lists.