Film Review: Generation P

Although some elements of this Russian satire get lost in translation, its skepticism about consumerism and the political process is universal.

In case you were curious, the “P” in Generation P—the debut narrative feature from Russia-born director Victor Ginzburg, based on the successful novel by Victor Pelevin—refers to “Pepsi,” which here represents not just a sugary soft drink, but also the hopes and aspirations for the future of a nation at a crossroads…as well as, inevitably, the soulless symbol of a consumer-minded culture. As the movie’s hero Babylen Tatarsky (Vladimir Yepifantsev) explains it, he and his contemporaries acquired the “Generation Pepsi” label in the waning years of Communism, when growing cracks in the Soviet state allowed Western ideas and products—including Pepsi—to slip through and embed themselves in the minds of young people. By the time the USSR finally collapses in 1991, Babylen is in his 20s and working a dead-end job at a kiosk, peddling cigarettes, condoms and other sundry items to those fortunate enough to have disposable income. It’s still the early days of commercial consumerism in Russia, and the reality of peddling goods to his fellow countrymen is far less glamorous than the Pepsi-fueled dreams he grew up with.

Direct sales may not be the right fit for him, but Babylen (who, as his name suggests, has had a lifelong fascination with ancient Babylon) soon finds his professional calling when an old school chum brings him into the world of advertising. Starting off as a lowly copywriter, he proves particularly adept at designing inventive campaigns that meld the country’s Communist past with its consumerist future. (One of his early pitches, for example, is for a commercial featuring a group of Russian men and women dressed in traditional garb singing and dancing around a can of Sprite.) He doesn’t come up with this stuff purely on his own, of course; rather, the ideas bubble up in his brain after the ingestion of different mind-altering substances, ranging from alcohol to particularly potent ’shrooms to acid.

Eventually, Babylen proves himself to be such a superb salesman that he makes the leap to government service…after a fashion. See, his new workplace, the so-called “Institute of Apiculture,” doesn’t advertise products—it advertises politics, politicians and the very government itself. That’s right, Russia’s entire political system is one giant marketing campaign, populated by ciphers whose statements, decisions and even scandals are generated entirely by a computer program. It’s the job of people like Babylen to keep the operation running smoothly and the public happy (or at least distracted) with their computer-generated leadership. But after an unexpected system failure wipes out the nation’s political class faster than you can hit the “delete” key, Russia’s greatest ad man will have to keep all his wits (and drugs) about him in order to do what’s necessary to maintain order.

Originally published in 1999—right before the start of Vladimir Putin’s decade-long reign as President, then Prime Minister, then President again—Pelevin’s book was celebrated in its native country as a clever skewing of a tumultuous decade. Although still largely set in the ’90s, the film version is more explicitly about the Putin era, an idea that’s driven home by Ginzburg’s decision to cast a performer who has often portrayed the Russian president as Babelyn’s computer-designed leader. Elements like this, coupled with the copious visual and verbal references to the country’s Soviet past, make Generation P something of a challenge for non-Russian audiences who may not possess a working knowledge of the targets that Ginzburg is aiming at. The fact that the movie ventures into some pretty strange, practically psychedelic territory in its final act is also bound to leave a certain segment of viewers befuddled. (It doesn’t help that Ginzburg doesn’t demonstrate the surest hand when it comes to that particular material; the movie’s leap into a more fantastical realm feels jarring instead of carefully planned.)

At the same time, though, the broader ideas and themes of Generation P do cross borders; given the election that we here in America just went through, the notion of politicians who are manufactured and run by a corporation rings all too true, as does the omnipresence of advertising in our daily lives, which can deaden the public’s awareness to the point where commercials come to seem like reality. These ideas were central to a distinctly American political comedy, Barry Levinson’s 1997 film Wag the Dog, a movie that’s funnier and more fleet-footed than the uneven Generation P. (Come to think of it, it would be interesting to know how that film might play to a Russian crowd.) Ginzburg’s film fulfills one of the main functions of satire—to critique perceived societal problems—but it falls short in another key area: generating laughs.