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Praising Nixon for his detente with the Soviet Union and China, Gore Vidal once said: “Forget his motives. They were always base…What matters is what is done.” Some of us might question Russell Brand’s motives for making a documentary about robber baron capitalism but the facts contained in it are what matter.
The Emperor’s New Clothes, directed by a back-seat Michael Winterbottom (it’s clear who’s running this show), follows Brand as he seeks to upbraid banking bosses for the perfidious ways in which the losses of the 2008 crisis were taken on by the state — in effect smashing Britain’s benefits system. The £100bn paid since in bonuses; the zero convictions or prison time served by any banker; the seeming impossibility of governments holding companies such as Google and Apple to account for avoiding taxes.
“You have to organise,” keens Brand, “you have to protest!” As he sails down the streets of the City of London, his artfully ragged coat leaving a disdainful wake behind him, people surge forward to touch its hem. One thing is certain: Brand has charisma. It is a thing much rarer than you think. But essentially he is a naughty uncle, and a much better charmer than he is a comedian or thinker. Capitalist outrages are not really the most memorable thing about the film — more the effect this particular male has on females. Grannies clutch his hands, toddlers blush like plums. In one scene, a teenager worrying about terminal unemployment sits across from Brand on a sofa, gazing as he vibes away with his black curls and waves around his deviant-of-the-people cuppa. Her pupils are as dilated as someone thoroughly drugged.
Stale Nick Broomfieldisms crop up too many times (whenever Brand attempts to get upstairs to the bosses he ends up merely gassing with security guards). But worse, the film indulges in the lowest trick of all — using the “common sense” of children to make political points. Brand travels to his former primary school in Essex and addresses a crowd of (adorable) eight-year-olds — a Pied Piper dressed as Jack Sparrow. So, Brand engages in Socratic dialogues with children, who fully support his contention that cleaning ladies are badly paid compared with the executives of multinational corporations. Nonetheless, he is basically right.