Okay, so let’s establish the facts about “DRIB,” an unclassifiable meta-documentary satire that burns down the marketing industry and everyone in it: In 2014, a Los Angeles advertising company flew over a stunt comic/performance artist named Amir Asgharnejad (born in Iran, raised in Norway) in the hopes that he might anchor a high-concept advertisement for an unnamed energy drink company. Internet famous at the time thanks to a series of viral videos in which he gets the shit kicked out of him by strangers he antagonized on the street, Amir was hired to replicate his beatdowns as part of a broader content initiative of some kind. The plan hadn’t been fully approved, and the agency didn’t know that all of the assailants in Amir’s videos were paid accomplices, but the idea was to shoot the risqué footage, “leak” the faux-vérité spots to the media as part of a “cancelled” campaign, and feast on the free publicity that followed.
Apparently that’s how you convince people to go out and buy some more of your liquid cocaine.
Of course, the hardest part about marketing something in the modern era is that nobody really knows what they’re selling. Back in the day, Don Draper pushed the American people on an idealized image of themselves, positioning his products as a transformational mechanism for personal fulfillment. But the strategy has changed with the times. Now, in a wary and interconnected age when products are little more than spores that have been shed from the cloud-like brands that surround us, the dynamic between content and consumers has become far less baldly transactional. We used to buy things — now we’re indoctrinated into living with them. Companies aren’t selling items, they’re selling the basic fabric of reality back to us.
Which brings us back to Mr. Asgharnejad, whose fake cancelled campaign was cancelled for real after the foreigner spent a few exasperating days being kicked around Hollywood. But that was never going to be the end of it. Amir, who fancies himself as the Andy Kaufman of YouTube and has always thrived at the intersection between fiction and reality, knew that his ordeal could be an excellent conduit to explore (and mess with) the idea of media manipulation on a corporate level.
So he tapped his friend, mockumentary director Kristoffer Borgli, and the two began to hatch a scripted non-fiction film that would re-create and deconstruct the entire process. Amir would play himself, and actors would play everyone else. There was just one problem: The energy drink company (whose name probably rhymes with “Dead Pull”) was prepared to sue the project into oblivion. That left our intrepid disruptors with only one option: Invent their own energy drink, and build a movie around that. And so, Drib was born.
That’s a lot of set up, but the process of sorting through the overcomplicated, exasperatingly oblique mechanics of what “DRIB” is doing is by far the least enjoyable part of watching it. Borgli’s film school posturing about the hazy line between corporate content and real life never pierces the surface, and the seemingly staged scenes in which Amir breaks the fourth wall and argues with his director are dull at best, and distracting at worst (though it’s worth a chuckle to hear Borgli sigh that he “Began to regret asking Amir to star in a film about how difficult Amir was to work with”).
On the other hand, “DRIB” makes for a delightfully warped fish-out-of-water satire that takes a torch to the absurdities of branding in the 21st Century. Bizarro comic genius Brett Gelman is brilliant as the hellish creative behind Amir’s campaign — his hilarious insistence that he’s undermining the system from the inside as part of an experiment in “collapse economics” should ring insanely true for anyone who’s ever listened to someone try and extricate themselves from the dehumanizing systems they serve — and the various indignities he forces upon Amir in the name of advertising make for some great self-contained sketches.
While Borgli lacks “The Comedy” director Rick Alverson’s gift for straight-faced subversion, he compensates for that by leaning hard towards the cringe-inducing style of “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” Like Larry David, Amir is totally immune to embarrassment (he ends a Skype interview with The Huffington Post by exposing his penis), and so “DRIB” becomes less interested in laughing at its characters than it is at the culture that brings them together.
The movie certainly doesn’t intend to poke fun at actor Adam Pearson, who plays himself in a killer cameo that starts with him shooting an anti-bullying video and ends with him talking about how turned on he was by Scarlett Johansson during their unforgettable scene together in “Under the Skin.” Likewise, agency intern Cathy Rothman (a compulsively watchable Annie Hamilton) is put in a ridiculous situation when she’s asked to procure Ambien for Amir, but she’s not a ridiculous person for agreeing to do it.
“DRIB” is never quite as interesting as the ideas that it summons to the surface — too often it feels like a Vice article that’s gone horribly awry — but, by the time it ends with a link to the film’s website and an invitation to “learn more about the product,” it’s clear that this unclassifiable docu-joke has a pretty decent punchline. Art becomes commerce, commerce becomes art, and the snake eats its tail while slowly starving itself to death. Drink up.
“DRIB” premiered in the Visions section of SXSW 2017. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.