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The press notes for “Generation P” require an atypical full page for the film’s synopsis and still, you might have to write something as long as Victor Pelevin’s turn-of-the-millennium novel that the film is based on to do it justice. But as dense and occasionally convoluted as writer/director Victor Ginzburg’s adaptation is of the book that’s considered a landmark of post-communist Russian literature, “Generation P” feels revolutionary in not only its ideology but also its execution.
In much the same way Timur Bekmambetov came by the special effects for “Night Watch” and “Day Watch” from a completely different perspective than Western filmmakers, the Russian-born, American-bred Ginzburg brings a completely unique visual palette to the story of Babylen Tatarsky (Vladimir Epifantsev), a lowly clerk who goes from selling cigarettes and condoms from behind a kiosk for underworld types in the early '90s to drawing upon his disdain for the gig to become a successful copywriter who creates controversial ad campaigns for their respective companies in the go-go era that followed.
Utilizing his otherwise useless degree in literature and poetry for clever slogans (and less cynically, the film’s earnest narration), Babylen rides the wave of Western companies eager to cash in on the start of capitalism in the former Soviet Union, creating a generation that lusts after Pepsi and, if all goes according to best laid plans, sees the introduction of new products intertwined with their newfound personal freedom. (Babylen soon champions a theory called "wowism" that's based in reprogramming the public with television.) A proposed campaign for Sprite as “the Nye-Cola” touches on the anti-authoritarian sentiment of the era and in one of the film’s many faux commercials that demonstrate Babylen’s work, the “taste explosion” of a Tic-Tac is taken literally in a reflection of the world where anything goes. But as Babylen gradually loses the mullet and the glasses that define his time as part of the unenlightening masses to become a slickly dressed member of the powerful few, he also begins to lose his mind as he starts to take mind-expanding drugs to stave off writer’s block.
Replicating his own disillusionment, Babylen’s vision quests on crispy mushrooms and LSD prove to be where “Generation P” begins to get really messy for those watching it. As with most adaptations of sprawling novels, the constant introduction of new characters including thugs of both the white collar and black-hooded variety who aim to take advantage of Babylen whisk the film further away from its central conceit of the psychological aspects of building a totalitarian regime through marketing, making the film less interesting when it resembles a thriller of the more traditional movie variety than the intellectual potboiler it truly is. Still, hardly any movie that employs the spirit of Che Guevara to pitch a pitchman a rationalization for his job could be considered traditional and “Generation P”’s consistent willingness to upset the accepted history of the Cold War and its fallout is riveting, even when its story reaches any number of narrative dead ends.
A soundtrack including tracks from Giorgio Moroder and Portishead help darken the mood to appropriately dystopian atmospherics, but the film’s adventures into the surreal — the cheeky commercials, the notion that political leaders have virtual doppelgangers for public appearances, Babylen’s seemingly futile search for a goddess named Ishtar – all convincingly pulled off by special effects which are clearly more inventive out of necessity, are so well-realized that it feels like a complete vision, even if Ginzburg's wild ambition ultimately diffuses the film into a scattershot of ideas, some more successful and satisfying than others. Nonetheless, “Generation P” deserves to be seen by a wider audience than the one in its home country, a film that will undoubtedly earn its cult status over time by being serious about the cult part.
"Generation P" currently has no U.S. distribution. It will play twice more at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 15th at 6:30 p.m. at the Scotiabank Theatre 2 and September 16th at the Scotiabank Theatre 11.