[15 June 2011]
Somewhere between Michael Moore and Sacha Baron Cohen, with a little Daffy Duck thrown in, Morgan Spurlock is an obnoxious and attention-grabbing but undeniably funny and at times likable documentary maker. With The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, he’s come some way to getting his groove back, after his disappointing travelogue Where in the World is Osama bin Laden?
The key to Spurlock’s filmmaking is that it feels hyper-contemporary and of-the-moment, from stuffing himself with McDonald’s to prove it was bad for you to going out on a hunt for possibly the most demonised man in America’s history. He may be the ideal filmmaker for the Facebook/Twitter era: he comes up with gimmicky concepts to lure you in, grabs soundbites from what people say and displays it in huge text at the bottom of the screen, and conducts voxpops with people on the street. Take this premise: Spurlock wants to explore advertisements and product placement in film and television. So he creates this documentary, which he hopes will be entirely funded by advertisers, to be a kind of consumer culture will eat itself analogy. This is an undeniably pointless and unnecessary endeavour, but just wacky enough to be somewhat clever. As in Super Size Me, everyone knows that McDonald’s is bad, or that blockbusters are financed by big corporations, but Spurlock wants to find out to what extent.
So The Greatest Movie Ever Soldgets underway, and we see Spurlock calling up all the big companies and getting rejected, as well as finally securing some, including the little-known Ban deodorant, a fast-food restaurant unfortunately called Sheetz and POM Wonderful pomegranate juice, the main sponsor of the film and the reason for its title. He points out to us the more unusual content of his contracts, and conducts a number of illuminating and hilarious interviews with intellectuals and filmmakers – the best is probably with Quentin Tarantino, which includes a gag that had the cinema in pangs of laughter. Spurlock has a sly sense of humour; in his meetings with high-level execs, we learn that he is required to have a TV spot for certain companies in his film – we know these are coming, so when they suddenly jump out at us, it’s very funny.
What Spurlock is doing is riffing on the absurdity of the well-oiled machine that is product placement in the movies. But he’s not content with that, and the filmmaker in him wants to fit it into a story arc. This is ill-advised; after the rollicking first-half of the movie, which is so much fun, Spurlock turns to us with a heavy soul and confesses he feels like he’s sold out and is losing his identity, as if that wasn’t the idea in the first place. With faux-anxiety, he asks a couple of celebrities what it means to sell out; he manages to get a laugh from Big Boi of OutKast, who claims the duo never did a ‘Got Milk?’ commercial because André didn’t drink milk, thus remaining true to their identity, but this segment is pretty thin. He also takes a pointless trip to São Paulo,Brazil, a city that recently passed a law taking down all its street advertising. But he has nothing meaningful to say about this, so he just walks around a little and comes home. Not to be cynical, but you’d think with the crime problems in Brazil, advertising would be the least of their worries.
And this is indicative of the problems of The Greatest Movie Ever Sold on the whole. There are no smoking guns here. Spurlock promises real insight into the corporate world, and we keep looking for it, but there is none. As in his previous film, the conclusions feel pre-scripted, the dilemmas phony. It’s better when he just sits back and allows himself to excel at being naturally funny. All of which makes this a watchable and highly reflexive pop-culture documentary, though no more than the sum of its memorable laughs and snippets of highlights.
Left to Right: Morgan Spurlock (Director) and Antonio \“L.A.\” Reid (Chairman & CEO, Island Def Jam Music Group)
Left to Right: Morgan Spurlock (Director) and Ralph Nader (Politician, author, consumer advocate and four-time candidate for the U.S. presidency). Photos by Daniel Marracino