Your liver is like pâté.
—Dr. Darryl Isaacs
Winner of the Best Director prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me demonstrates graphically that fast food is bad for you. If the idea is not so new, it’s delivered in a manner that’s refreshingly aggressive, at once deliberate and antic.
The premise seems simple: Spurlock tasks himself with eating nothing but McDonalds, three meals a day, for 30 days. As the film is inspired by the increasing obesity of Americans, and its relationship to the seeming omnipresence of fast food and fast food advertising, Spurlock also sets a rule for himself: whenever a McDonalds clerk asks if he wants his order “super-sized,” he agrees. The film repeatedly shows evidence of such same, images that are at once familiar and startling: the anonymous torsos of overweight individuals (the same shots you’ll see in any tv newsmagazine’s report on the epidemic); adorable children singing anthems to McDonalds, KFC, and Pizza Hut; and the many many promotional devices that train youngsters to crave fast food, from Colonel Sanders and Wendy to Ronald McDonald and the Hamburglar.
The targeting of McDonalds, the filmmaker insists, is not personal (he claims to like Big Macs). Instead, Spurlock was inspired by the much-publicized rising obesity numbers in the U.S., as well as the (unsuccessful) lawsuit by two teenaged girls who claimed their overweight resulted directly from their McDiet. The film more or less contends that such legal wrangling neglects the importance of personal responsibility, even in the face of colossal corporate irresponsibility. Though he rejects “frivolous lawsuits,” Spurlock is more than willing to goad viewers into taking personal responsibility. (At the same time, the suggestion that, some day, it will be as socially “acceptable” to harass “fat pigs” as it is to harass smokers now, leaves out a raft of causes for obesity that are not overeating, not to mention recent efforts to reduce harassment of overweight people, by airline regulations or schoolyard taunts.)
More specifically and effectively, Spurlock posits McDonalds as the best at what it does—marketing products that are convenient, relatively inexpensive, and unhealthy to a population strapped for time, cash, and information. Taking the sort of agitative documentary tack of his models (Errol Morris, Michael Moore), he’s more interested in prodding viewers to thought or even action, by drawing attention to business excesses.
As Spurlock takes up his own “journey” into weight gain, he and DP Scott Ambrozy travel across the United States, with stops in some 20 cities, in order to sample local McD menus (for example, Houston’s McGriddle, combining the Egg McMuffin and griddle cakes) and occasion interviews with a range of eaters. Subjects include McDonalds customers and clerks, school nutritionists and cooks, even Jared, the ubiquitous weight-loser from the Subway commercials. (The stops at schools underline that poor nutrition habits start early, encouraged by vending machines and lunchroom fare that includes chips, ice cream, and sodas.)
“Do you eat fast food?” Spurlock asks a series of “on-the-street” interviewees, by way of introducing the film. They invariably say yes, even as they also confess that they also “know” it’s not good for them. With 31,000 McDonalds stores open worldwide—in malls, Wal-marts, schools, hospitals, and airports—the film contends (with the help of colorful animated maps) that consumers face an onslaught of availability and commercials. All this despite the generally common knowledge—voiced here by such notable talking heads as former Surgeon General David Satcher, health advocate John Robbins (son of the Baskin-Robbins Robbins, and sickly as a child, he says, from all the ice cream he ate), and lawyer John Benzhaff (who brought the suit on behalf of the teenaged girls)—that French fries and shakes are high in calories, fat, sugar, and salt.
To prepare himself and monitor the results of his experiment, Spurlock meets with three doctors (a cardiologist, a gastroenterologist, and an internist), as well as a nutritionist and exercise physiologist, who all assure him that he’s “above average” with regard to health (cholesterol levels, weight, cardiology, etc.). He also has the emotional support of his patient girlfriend, a vegan chef by trade, who attests periodically during the ordeal (and it quickly becomes an ordeal), as to his reduced energy, mood swings, lack of concentration and flagging sexual capacity.
Though Spurlock and his team of doctors imagine he’ll run into some trouble, no one quite anticipates the awesome effects of full-on Mickey D’s. Spurlock begins the month with some gusto; biting into his first Egg McMuffin, he grins, “It’s every eight-year-old’s dream that I’m getting to fulfill right now.” Just a couple of days later, he’s already feeling the combined effects of the regimen and his decision to behave like the “average” American (walking no more than a mile a day): his chest feels tight and his head aches. In the parking lot trying to down a Super Sized meal (the fries alone deliver 600 calories), he mumbles about his “McStomach-ache.” He groans, “McBrick, McGurgles, some McGas.” And then, the gross-out effect: he grimaces, gags, and pukes out the car window, the results documented on the spot by the ever alert Ambrozy.
By day five, Spurlock has gained nine pounds (5% of his body weight, notes his horrified nutritionist, who advises that he find a way to cut down on his 5000 calories a day, literally twice what he should be consuming). By day eight, though eh indulges in his first Fish Fillet, Spurlock is feeling “bored” by the menu and depressed; his dashboard is now populated with McDonalds Happy Meals toys. Underlining the connection between kids and fast food marketing, he shows a set of pictures to kindergartners, some of whom recognize George Washington, none Jesus Christ, and all, Ronald McDonald: no wonder billions have been served, as they’re trained from toddlerhood to see the food as “treats.” (To underline the theme of “Addiction,” included here as intertitle, Curtis Mayfield’s “Pusherman” runs under images of a demonic Ronald and ominous statistics.)
Again, even as the warning isn’t new (see also, Eric Schlosser’s book, Fast Food Nation), the critique this time ranges from clever insults to appealingly packaged insights. Some points are left undeveloped: one unhappy and slightly overweight teen articulates the concern of so many, that she’ll never live up to the ideal of fashion models anyway, so how can she help but be depressed and feel inadequate (this as the screen fills with pop-up images of these models, crowding the real girl out of her own interview). Another barely mentioned contention has to do with President Bush’s notoriously underfunded “No Child Left Behind” initiative, here at fault for the closing down of physical education courses, in order that more time might be spent “teaching for the test.”
The film doesn’t spend much time on these overtly politicized positions; rather, it maintains its focus on the fast food industry per se, as purveyor of ruinous products. To this end, Super Size Me disparages the use of well-paid lobbyists to protect the industry’s interests, and makes a running gag of Spurlock’s inability to get in touch with a McDonalds rep. At the same time, some ideas get short shrift, for instance, the intersections of class and poor health, as cheap food tends to be unhealthy, just as marketing in and to underclass communities tends to be cynical and everywhere. (The faceless torsos and rear ends that pass repeatedly before Ambrozy’s lens tend to be clothed in inexpensive fabrics and styles; reminding you that McDonalds customers don’t have lots of money to spend on fashion or food.)
Spurlock is not interested in deception or surprise-humiliation. (He financed the film with profits from a money-for-stunts series he sold to MTV, I Bet You Will, where participants know full well what they’re getting into, even if they engage in activities that viewers are encouraged to ridicule.) He sets himself up as a “guinea pig,” and a stubborn one at that. On learning that his health is at risk, he keeps on for the entire 30 days, because he said he would. The result is appropriately unnerving, and while McDonalds has protested the portrayal of its tactics and products, it has also discontinued its Super Sizing.