My mother hates Michael Moore movies. Not because she disagrees with Moore’s positions – she is in fact quite politically liberal – but simply because she finds him extremely obnoxious as a person. This is the serious risk any journalist takes when they go Gonzo, and make themselves a part of their story. Gonzo journalism may be entertaining, but it always brings up relevant questions of motives and integrity — as a cynical viewer can easily assert that the filmmaker is self-aggrandizing. Moore’s central appearance in his first film, Roger & Me, made sense, as Flint, Michigan was his home town. It was that hook that made the film feel important. And even though I don’t particularly love Michael Moore any more than my mother, I know enough about the film industry to recognize that Moore’s continued presence in his films is a marketing tool and a way to get financing. Roger & Me made him a star, and now he has that tool to work with. I’m not saying that a certain part of Moore isn’t a fame-mongering attention whore, but you can’t deny that he is a politically motivated person.
I can’t say the same for Morgan Spurlock.
I don’t really get Morgan Spurlock as a filmmaker. Which isn’t to say I dislike him. I know a lot of people find him obnoxious too, but I kinda dig the guy for whatever reason. Maybe it’s his doofy mustache. But my liking of him aside, I don’t get what he’s all about. Spurlock burst onto the documentary scene in a big way with Super Size Me, which was really more of a stunt than a film. It’s central conceit is something any reasonable person already knows (fast food isn’t good for you), and it isn’t particularly well-made. The reason it worked (if you enjoyed it) is because of Spurlock’s aw-shucks geniality. He was more important the film’s message, which is unusual for theatrical documentaries and normally would have sidelined the film straight to DVD. But it came out at the exact right moment, when various obesity lawsuits were being lobbed at the fast food giants, and it became the highest profile and most easily accessible call to arms. But I had to wonder — did Spurlock make the film to draw attention to McDonald’s unhealthy food, or to draw attention to himself? In a sense, Super Size Me has just as much in common with a youtube video documenting the growth of a crazy beard as it does with Fast Food Nation.
It made a lot of sense to me when Spurlock followed the film up with a similar high-concept TV series, 30 Days. TV frankly seems like the appropriate venue for Spurlock, where a docu-series benefits from having a central character/host to form a connective thread from episode to episode. But he’s kept at it with the features. First his follow up Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden? and now his latest high-concept endeavor, POM Wonderful Presents The Greatest Movie Ever Sold.
The concept for GMES is delightfully meta. Spurlock is making a documentary about his attempts to finance said documentary through nothing more than product tie-ins, ultimately getting POM Wonderful to pony up the most dough and claim the coveted above-the-title ad space. We follow him from inception all the way to him promoting the film, which brings to mind a different sort of inception as the movie sort of folds in on itself crazily, becoming a dream within a dream within a dream — like when see him appear on Jimmy Kimmel Live to promote the movie, in the movie. I thought the film was a good time. Light, breezy, funny, and actually pretty interesting at times. But I’m not sure I can tell you what the point of the film was.
Now, when I say “point” I don’t mean “stance.” I don’t think a documentary necessarily needs to be jamming an idea or viewpoint down our throats. Some issues don’t have easy answers, and are better served simply by shining a light on them, as Moore did with Bowling For Columbine. This is the approach GMES is trying to take. The film isn’t saying that the insane amount of advertising we’re receiving in our daily lives is bad or good or detrimental or benign. Spurlock makes the effort to show us all the angles, and there are moments when the film seems to be touching on something deeper and real. In the most richly contemplative sequence in the film, we visit an impoverished school district that is desperately trying to use in-school advertising to support school programs. This is an intriguing contrast. Placing Burger King ads inside a school bus seems almost Orwellianly terrible. But what if those ads allowed children to receive a better education? That’s a good Winnie the Pooh-style head-scratcher. But, alas, sequences like this, and Spurlock’s trip to São Paulo, Brazil where all outdoor advertising has been banned, feel like tacked on attempts to make the rest of the film seem consequential.
I can’t help but assume that the genesis for the film wasn’t Spurlock deciding to shine a light on the world of product placement, but rather that this would be a nifty idea for a movie. And it is a nifty idea. If this had been an hour-long episode of a Spurlock TV show, I’d be giving it a rave review. Because like I said, it is fun and I frankly learned a lot about the behind-the-scenes processes of product placement. But at the same time… who cares? I’m also curious how shoes are made and how a giant machine can shell a perfect walnut half when I can’t do it by hand. That’s what Mister Roger’s segments are for. For an entire movie that people are expected to drop $10-12 on, it seems like there should be something more going on than Spurlock seeing if he can talk some big companies into financing a movie about him talking big companies into financing a movie. But at the end of the day, whatever. Few people see documentaries in the theater anyway. This is the exact sort of film people would love to pop on Netflix Instant. After a long day at work, no one really wants to see something heady like Restrepo. You want Morgan Spurlock delivering up something that feels like an informative but un-challenging big budget Discovery Channel special.
Unfortunately, where the film falters most is Spurlock’s random and interspersed attempts to feign that he is doing something deeper than a fun high-concept Discovery Channel special. Here we reach Spurlock’s greatest foible as a filmmaker, one that is present in all his films. Super Size Me had moments were Spurlock’s weight gain seemed to threaten his relationship with his girlfriend, which would have made a lot more sense if the film wasn’t spanning a single month and she wasn’t in on it; it was a pretty lazy attempt at “upping the stakes.” Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden? had Spurlock agonizing over missing the birth of his child as though he wasn’t the one who decided to take a wacky romp through the Middle East (this also had absolutely nothing to do with the greater story of the film). Most dubiously of all, GMES features some profoundly nonsensical moments where Spurlock hams up his creative turmoil over whether or not he is allowing the advertisers too much control. Control of what? This would make sense if we were watching the behind-the-scenes doc about a filmmaker trying to get product placement for another movie. But this is a movie about Spurlock getting product placement. That’s all there is! In fact, the film is sort of a mind-bending Chicken-or-the-Egg paradox if you really start thinking about it. There is no movie! Yet we’re supposed to feel like Spurlock is giving over a small piece of himself when POM rejects his ideas for the fake commercials he’s making for POM to be placed within the film. Huh? There is even a scene in which he sits down to have a serious talk with someone about how far he can go before he “sells out.” Double huh? Sell out what? The goal of seeing if you can get ten companies to finance your movie with product placement?
These are the issues with The Greastest Movie Ever Sold if we’re viewing it as a serious or relevant documentary. If viewed as a playful gag the film is entertaining and pleasantly amusing — I laughed when Spurlock interrupts Ralph Nadier’s rant about the evil’s of advertising to start talking about the shoes he’s wearing (part of the film’s product placement), and I also liked seeing people drinking POM in every scene, and the ridiculous Hyatt ad which features Spurlock repeatedly eating cake with his bare hands even while exercising. One has to respect Spurlock on some level for the fact that he was able to make a movie with no story and no central idea other than documenting the process by which he got the money to release and market the movie you are currently watching about the process by which he got the money to release and market the movie you are currently watching… *cue Inception fog horn*
After I saw Super Size Me I had a terrible craving for McDonald’s, which I rarely ever eat. I found this comically ironic. So I was curious if I would feel the impulse to go buy any GMES products after I saw this film. I did. I bought some Mane & Tail shampoo (for humans and horses — how could I not?!), part of a running gag in the film. The irony this time is that Mane & Tail is the only featured product in the film that didn’t actually give Spurlock any money, proving that the best type of advertising is the free kind.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars