There is no denying it. Documentary filmmaker Morgan Spurlock loves a stunt. In his 2004 doc Super Size Me, the director illustrated McDonald’s ill health effects by gaining 25 pounds on a steady diet of its food. Big surprise denouement: his cholesterol spiked. Spurlock has made a habit of lobbing softballs at some pretty easy targets in his proprietary invention, the obvio-doc. The grinning everyman of investigative reportage, he creates documentaries for people who don’t necessarily like the complexities or gray areas offered in typical docs and prefer something one-note and lighter than marshmallow fluff.
Not much has changed. The conceit of Spurlock’s latest film POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold is the ultimate gimmick: a film about advertising, marketing, and product placement paid for with ... product placement. It’s an Ouroboros snake devouring its own tail. Fortunes are spent, declaims Spurlock, on placing products like Coca-Cola into movies and offering tie-ins between summer blockbusters and McDonald’s and Burger King. Spurlock’s self-referential documentary thus centers on an idea that will strike everyone except leper colony dwellers, shut-ins, and other off-the-grid types who haven’t caught a blockbuster in decades as utterly obvious. This is not exactly Woodward and Bernstein territory.
The bulk of the movie is composed of meta-meetings in which Spurlock, with camera crew in tow, tries to convince corporate lackeys at brands from Ban to Volkswagen — sometimes he never makes it beyond an initial cold call — to trade their product placement in a movie for the cash Spurlock needs to make his doc. It’s the kind of gag that could perhaps fuel a TV comedy skit, but as a feature-length film concept, it’s wafer thin.
After copious rejections, Spurlock is eventually able to interest some companies in his pay-to-play. POM juice, with its eerily preserved boss lady Lynda Resnick, is on board. A Pennsylvania-based gas station chain with the unfortunate name Sheetz joins in. Merrell shoes, JetBlue, Hyatt hotels — like party guests who’ve gotten wind of the guest list, they all pile on once they sense the film is a safe bet. There are also appearances by a succession of marketing experts like Ralph Nader, Noam Chomsky, and Mark Crispin Miller, whose quick sound bites next to Spurlock’s prolonged jestering tend to make little impact. Spurlock plays dumb and the eggheads all walk right into his trap, offering thoughtful commentary on the dominance of advertising in our lives.
Unfortunately, The Greatest Movie Ever Sold turns out to be the perfect advertisement for the corporations involved because it sells that ad-man buzz word “authenticity” and association with ironic in-jokes that such products crave. The companies, like POM and Sheetz, end up looking like they are good-naturedly game for a stunt, even as they shill their product. It’s a win-win proposition but not necessarily one worth plunking down your hard-earned money to support.
Some of the most interesting material is the stuff Spurlock spends the least amount of time on. His revelation, for instance, that Sao Paulo, Brazil, has completely banned advertising (street art fans will note, retaining artists’ work on city walls) from the city limits is fascinating. We tend to think of advertising as a capitalist prerogative, the dirty business of living in a democracy. But the idea that some could see it as oppressive visual noise and make efforts to erase it is powerful.
Too bad for the rest of the film Spurlock simply asserts its centrality without delving into such alternatives. When Spurlock visits a Florida high school where the disgusted, wonderfully critical students are required to watch a corporate-sponsored news broadcast in their classrooms and voice their objections, it only serves to remind you of the annoyance factor in Spurlock’s chipper, gleeful attitude. Compared to this poor captive audience of teenagers, it is clear there isn’t really anything to laugh about. The moment should be depressing, but Spurlock spins it into another bitter joke. You get the feeling these kids would have made a far more incisive and heartfelt film about the way advertising has insinuated its way into our lives than Spurlock’s shallow laugh-fest.