His choice of movie roles might suggest otherwise, but Russell Brand is actually a pretty bright guy. But try as FX might to pour his restless intelligence into the mold of a latenight talkshow, “Brand X” feels more like a standup act given the wrong venue.
Brand may be best known for goofy movies like “Arthur” or his brief marriage to pop siren Katy Perry, but it’s only in radio interviews or either of his memoirs that he lets on how hyperarticulate and almost compulsively thoughtful he really is. While it’s admirable that FX sought to find a showcase for the actor-comedian’s lesser-known side, “Brand X” doesn’t suit him.
The problem isn’t that Brand is wedged into a conventional talkshow setting. If anything, “Brand X” seems to almost mock the genre. The studio audience is filmed in such a way that it appears to be only a few rows deep. And instead of an amiable sidekick on a couch, Brand gets Harvard-bred policy wonk Matt Stoller, who sits at a desk onstage as if his office just happens to be the set of a cable TV show.
The shtick here is that Brand is pretending to be a visiting alien who must rely on an expert to help him understand America. But it makes little sense. There’s so much shared culture between his country and ours that he’s setting up his comedic perspective from a false distance. The guy is from Britain, not Zimbabwe.
When he’s not playing off Stoller (who happens to be the brother of Nicholas Stoller, director of some of Brand’s movies), Brand flirts with the audience with equal futility. Either he’s polling them to tee up a canned observation or he goes into Ricki Lake mode and mingles with them to milk some laughs. But it’s unneeded gimmickry that prompts him to lay into lazy targets, at one point comparing his microphone to a circumcised penis.
“Brand X” works when Brand doesn’t force himself to play with the trappings of the show and he just sticks to the monologue. Listening to him pinball from capitalism to spirituality to celebrity and back again, teasing apart the connective tissue that somehow ties them all together, is mental gymnastics at its most limber. It’s not so much a stream as it is a geyser of consciousness.
And it’s in those moments where you realize Brand needn’t bother with an inhouse adviser or a crowd. They are distractions for what would otherwise be a strong one-man show or a podcast in which his mind would require only one prop: a microphone.