'Brand: A Second Coming': SXSW Review

BRAND: A Second Coming Still - H 2015
Courtesy of Interloper Films

BRAND: A Second Coming Still - H 2015

A consistently entertaining, mildly skeptical look at the comedian's revolutionary aspirations.

Russell Brand makes an awfully unlikely messiah.

Russell Brand, the former drug addict and sex addict who, in most quarters, is most famous for marrying and divorcing Katy Perry, would not seem the ideal candidate to lead a global consciousness-raising, oligarchy-shattering revolution. But Ondi Timoner demonstrates why that prospect makes sense to some in Brand: A Second Coming, a thoroughly entertaining doc that serves also as a primer on Brand's shockingly successful comedy career and an introduction to his singular personality. Though more of a sure thing commercially in the U.K., where he has filled arenas for one-man shows, the film has strong appeal here as well and seems ideal for a venue like HBO.

Brand, who was slated to give the keynote here, canceled that appearance and is said to have attempted to prevent SXSW from showing the film. Clearly the subject, who gave Timoner tremendous access to his world, was surprised by the result, despite its largely positive tone. Reportedly, Timoner was the sixth director attached to the project, with her predecessors including the late Albert Maysles. Clips from an earlier version, where Brand interviewed celebrities like David Lynch and Mike Tyson about spirituality and happiness, suggest that Brand envisioned a much more beard-stroking look at the world's problems and didn't anticipate a doc that would spend most of its time trying to make sense of his personality.

That personality is a doozy, as anyone who first encountered the actor in Forgetting Sarah Marshall or on one of his mercurial talk-show appearances can attest. Given to going on funny, logorrheic rants that sometimes contain more reasoned thoughts than a man should be able to compose at that speed, Brand is more thoughtful than one expects someone oozing rock-star hedonism to be. Timoner spends plenty of time getting inside both his manic demeanor and his narcissistic need for others' attention: His mother, Barbara, recalls him telling her as a child that he was "the second Jesus."

We see ample clips of stand-up shows and learn of controversies that didn't reach across the pond, like something called "Sachsgate," in which a prank call made on-air on BBC Radio 2 wound up forcing the station's controller to resign. More useful are interviews with friends and colleagues (some of them co-writers) who witnessed the anarchic birth of Brand's career and its near-collapse: Some of these friends shot footage of him during the darkest period of his drug addiction, footage that shows his extroverted charm vanishing before our eyes.

In his post-drugs attempts to rehabilitate himself, some of Brand's efforts didn't turn out to be as self-effacing as they seemed: We hear of "a yoga coup," for instance, in which he came to overshadow his spiritual leader. But even when they enable his vanities, these pursuits seem honestly undertaken — something critics have found hard to accept, now that Brand has become a full-throated revolutionary.

As the doc focuses on his activism, one notices a dearth of specifics in Brand's impassioned arguments and (more problematic for a would-be leader) a thin-skinned response to those who question him. Though his comedy has shown him to be admirably open about his faults, it turns out that only applies when he's the one noticing them. Still, the film suggests that many previously apolitical youths have had their anti-status quo indignation stoked by Brand's recent The Trews web series and his support of movements like Occupy Wall Street. Whether those fans will turn their retweets into action is a question still unanswered.

Production company: Interloper Films

Director-Screenwriter-Producer: Ondi Timoner

Directors of photography: Svetlana Cvetko

Editors: Ondi Timoner, Tim Rush, Clay Zimmerman, David Timoner

Sales: Liesl Copland, WME

No rating, 118 minutes