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Morgan Spurlock gets meta with advertising

Morgan Spurlock burst onto the scene in 2004 with Super Size Me, an entertaining first-person documentary that sought to prove the most obvious hypothesis in cinematic history—if you eat only McDonalds food for a month, your health will decline—but did so in a way that was riveting. It was the masochistic voyeurism of watching someone clog their arteries with Big Macs.

Seven years later, Spurlock is still known as the McDonalds guy, which doesn't speak well for his recent catalog of work, and which is why his latest documentary conceit—that moviegoers today are inundated by product placement and branding—sounded a bit too much like the M.O. of a one-trick pony. The idea that The Greatest Movie Ever Sold could be funded entirely by sponsors (or "brand integration" as they call it in the biz), didn't sound like too much of a challenge. And a documentary by Captain Obvious without a shred of conflict or suspense just sounds dull. At least in Super Size Me there was always the remote possibility that Spurlock would drop dead of a coronary on screen.

That the full title of the documentary is POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold tells you right away Spurlock succeeded. But the real surprise here is that the film is a delight—a compelling and often-hilarious look at modern advertising that moves along so briskly that you never have a chance to stop and consider the dearth of earth-shattering conclusions. As director, co-writer, and emcee, Spurlock deploys the same airy, everyman charm that made Super Size Me such a success. Only here he gets to play pitchman, a role he seems born for, even while he's winking at the audience.

There's a look you'll see a lot in this film on the faces of various marketing executives as Spurlock sits in bland conference rooms and attempts to explain what he's doing. Let's call it the "I'm just going to nod and pretend like I understand what's going on, but I'll get fired if I say yes to him" look. Their perplexed expressions are justified. Take the meeting with Sheetz convenience store executives, in which Spurlock tells them that a clip of this very meeting about their product will appear in a documentary that is both about and funded by product placement, and you begin to understand just how meta this whole endeavor is.

click to enlarge This film brought to you by the Missoula Independent.
  • This film brought to you by the Missoula Independent.

To Spurlock's great surprise, Sheetz becomes one the first major sponsors to sign on, later joined by Jet Blue, Hyatt, Mini Cooper, Merrell Shoes, and a host of others. And then there is POM Wonderful, who apparently paid $1 million to be the title sponsor. The best scenes in The Greatest Movie Ever Sold are those where Spurlock fulfills his contractual obligations while moving the film's narrative along. Yes, all other branded beverages are blurred out, and yes, Spurlock manages to pimp the merits of Merrell while interviewing Mr. Consumer Advocate himself, Ralph Nader, about the fallacy of advertising.

It's a fine line to walk, with Spurlock juggling the need to earnestly promote a product while at the same time discussing the growth of product placement and corporate influence on artistic freedom in the entertainment industry. The latter is an important subject for sure, but ultimately secondary to the fun in watching the director try to finance the film. Early on Spurlock reads a brusque and condescending rejection letter from Volkswagen. Later, while pumping gas at a Sheetz into his Mini Cooper and drinking a POM Wonderful, he tells us that the best part of today is that "I'm not driving a piece of shit Volkswagen." There's also a fantastic running gag about Mane 'n Tail, the shampoo for both horses and humans.

If Michael Moore ever tried to make a film like this it would blow up in his face. But Spurlock finds a fascinating middle ground where he deftly plays both sides with equal aplomb. One minute he's starring in a slickly produced 30-second commercial for one of his sponsors, and in the next scene director Peter Berg is telling him how corporations are ruining films. There's a small lull in the middle when Spurlock talks to specialists about the effect of advertising on the brain, but generally this is a sharply-edited documentary. It clocks in at a just-about-perfect 90 minutes.

To drive home the meta-ness of it all, The Greatness Movie Ever Sold follows Spurlock up until the point he is appearing on late night talk shows to promote the very film that we are watching. And, as contractually obligated to do, he appears in a suit adorned with logos of the 22 companies who ended up shelling out cash for the film. It's the closest thing you'll ever see to a human NASCAR car.

The Greatest Movie Ever Sold continues at the Wilma Theatre.

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