Cheeky Spurlock doc not quite ‘Greatest Movie Ever Sold’
Morgan Spurlock had an interesting concept for the movie that has become POM Wonderful Presents; The Greatest Movie Ever Sold. The documentary filmmaker whose popular Super Size Me established both Spurlock himself and his particular genre of stunt-activist films as a brand unto itself decided this time to explore the shadow world of what was once called “product placement”—the system by which corporations pay to have their products displayed onscreen in films and TV shows.
Spurlock set out to see if he could finance an entire film through what is now called “co-promotion” with a variety of brand-name sponsors, filming as he went along, delving into just how far an artist is willing to prostitute his morals, credibility, and his art in order to secure financing.
In Spurlock’s case, the answer to this last question is: all the way. As we can see from the film’s moniker, the pomegranate juice company bought the, er, plummy name-above-the-title sponsorship slot; Spurlock and his crew also shot full-on commercials for sponsors Hyatt Hotels and Jet Blue that appear in the film. Other corporate entities, like Sheetz diner/gas stations and Mini Cooper cars are similarly promoted throughout the movie. It’s all part of the joke, the same cheerful shamelessness with which Spurlock parades onto his first promotional late-night talk show in a special suit festooned with logos for Old Navy, Amy’s frozen pizza, and all of the above.
The problem with The Greatest Movie Ever Sold is that it’s a great concept in search of a payoff. Spurlock touches on a lot of intriguing ideas about consumerist culture, marketing, corporate clout, and artistic integrity, and gathers lots of fascinating folks to talk about them. (In particular, there are some marvelous bits of conversation with the very witty and savvy über consumer watchdog Ralph Nader.) But this film lacks the focus of Super Size Me. (All McDonald’s meals, three times a day, for one month—that’s a hook you can hang a movie on.) Most of the meandering action in the new film is Spurlock schlepping between corporate boardrooms, and while the tagalong camera occasionally picks up a truly fascinating nugget of information or insight, there are many other moments where nothing much is going on.
Spurlock is an easygoing pied piper leading us into the topsy-turvy world of corporate advertising. Marketers tell him he has to sell himself to potential advertisers, and conduct tests to discover his “brand personality.” (Spurlock scores in the “mindful/playful” category, making him a good match for similar brands like Apple and Jet Blue.) Directors like Quentin Tarantino talk about using brands in their movies, therapists weigh in on the psychology of marketing (including something freakish called “Neuro-marketing”), and we visit São Paolo, Brazil, which has banned all outdoor advertising from the city. (Residents report feeling “less confused,” with more “focus.”) Where else can one go to get away from advertising? “To sleep,” suggests Nader.
But while Spurlock clucks at TV advertisers who influence subtle changes in the content of the shows they sponsor, he doesn’t mind skewing the content of his own film for dramatic effect. In one early scene, he’s laughing hysterically over a product called Mane & Tail, a shampoo suitable for human and equine use. Later, we see him on the phone, trying to curry Mane & Tail as a sponsor, promising to submit every mention of the product in the film for their approval. (Since the end credits tell us the company didn’t sign on as a sponsor, evidently Spurlock felt free to use the earlier, derogatory footage, but the entire episode makes him seem like a shyster.)
At a board meeting at POM Wonderful, all three of Spurlock’s storyboarded proposals for commercials-within-the-film are rejected. “At what point do I become a foil to do everybody else’s bidding?” he pouts. (Well, duh! You don’t get to be a kept man for nothing.) But his three promo ideas are so idiotic, one suspects they’re intentionally bad in order to set up this faux dilemma about creative control and artistic integrity. Less of these spurious shenanigans and a more purposeful narrative would have given Spurlock, his sponsors and the audience more bang for the buck.
POM WONDERFUL PRESENTS:
THE GREATEST MOVIE EVER SOLD
★★1/2 (out of three) Watch film trailer >>>
A film by Morgan Spurlock.
A Sony Classics release. (PG-13) 90 minutes.