Any filmmaker trying to keep a career afloat has to spend some time being a huckster, but few filmmakers better resemble P.T. Barnum than documentary director and star Morgan Spurlock. A likeable, gregarious personality, Spurlock made his name with the 2004 doc Super Size Me, a staggeringly obvious look at how eating a steady diet of McDonald’s can make one ill, and he’s back at it with another diverting but unnecessary exposé. Spurlock decided to underwrite the $1.5 million cost of producing a documentary by branding the hopeful “docbuster” with sponsors and product placement. The meta twist? The documentary would be about corporate marketing strategies.
Hence we get POM Wonderful Presents The Greatest Movie Ever Sold. The results are breezy enough; with his winning sense of humor, Spurlock makes ninety minutes disappear agreeably. The problem is that the documentary doesn’t deliver on its oft-teased promise to pull back the curtain and reveal the supposedly hidden truth about what Spurlock implies is an insidious marketing practice. As Spurlock brings his pitch to interested sponsors, we see corporate executives doing their job of trying to find good value in product-awareness strategies. Sure, a few talk in comically meaningless corporate double-speak, but most come across as level-headed straight-shooters amiably collaborating with Spurlock.
Well, heck, that’s not the stuff of a “docbuster”! So Spurlock expands his investigation to sidelines like the science of neuromarketing—so he can evoke that sinister eyeball rape from A Clockwork Orange—and the practice of public schools “creatively compensating” for slashed budgets with schoolyard banner ads (about as benign as community ads in a church bulletin) and ad-drenched “Channel One News,” screened to captive audiences in daily increments of twelve minutes (definitely deserving of our ire).
This hit-and-run method achieves some breadth but little depth. Anyone living in this country must already be aware, if not acutely so, of our advertisement-saturated culture. Ralph Nader turns up to rail convincingly against the “social conditioning” carried out by corporations, and a brief trip to São Paolo makes its blessed ban on outdoor advertising look pretty darn appealing, but as a fast-food pitchwoman once asked, “Where’s the beef?”
The filmmaker questions repeatedly whether or not he can retain his integrity, though it seems that ship has sailed. Spurlock alludes to the threat product placement poses to artistic integrity without providing much in the way of facts or even examples, other than his own film. We hear a bit from one of the product-placement contracts, and Spurlock consults a lawyer; perhaps the film’s toothlessness may be the result of legal fears.
In lieu of “gotcha” results, most of the film finds Spurlock simply fulfilling his contractual obligations to his sponsors, from being seen driving a certain car, eating a certain food, or drinking a certain beverage to presenting four fully produced thirty-second spots. Not surprisingly, that joke gets old (and it’s pretty much devoid of documentary content). Maybe the film best succeeds by reminding us of the effectiveness of advertising. I’ll tell ya, after ninety minutes, I sorta felt like trying a POM Wonderful 100% Pomegranate Juice.
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]