Thursday, June 9, 2011

The Greatest Movie Ever Sold

Early on in The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, Morgan Spurlock uses the phrase “in perpetuity forever,” only to be chastised for being redundant. But the director just laughs it off. “I’m a redundant guy,” he says.

Does it even have to be said? Of course not, which is exactly why he says it anyway. After all, this is the man best known for Super Size Me, the movie that taught the world that eating at McDonald’s every day for a month makes you fat. Now he’s returned to tell us that advertising is everywhere, and gosh, isn’t that annoying? God save the truth tellers.

This might come as a shock to you, but—brace yourself—advertising has pervaded the very core of our society. Why, it might even be in your very own home. Right under your nose. And you don’t even know it. It’s like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, only more horrible because it’s real and doesn’t star Donald Sutherland. But at least Spurlock is here to alert us to the threat by courting advertisers (excuse me, “brand partners”) to sponsor his documentary about putting ads in movies. And then the scourge of advertising is defeated, and our hero moves to the country, and all is well, in perpetuity forever. That’s basically the ending of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, right?

But before that point, we can count on Spurlock to at least find some humour in the material, whether it be the weirdness of pitching for Mane 'n Tail Shampoo or the wink-wink naughtiness of slipping product placement into interviews (he even gets Ralph Nader to help shill for a pair of shoes). The director is a genial host, which is both his best asset and greatest liability. Unlike someone like Michael Moore, Spurlock defers to his subjects, preferring to make himself the butt of the joke most of the time. But his aw-shucks narration quickly grows tiresome. Imagine an entire documentary narrated by Kenneth the Page and you have some idea of how obnoxious this faux-innocence can be.

The film’s breezy, jocose tone ensures you’re rarely bored, but also rarely engaged. Spurlock, ever skilled at turning the obvious into the trivial, passes by every occasion to dig deeper into his subject matter. He only briefly delves into the unnerving practice of neuromarketing, in which MRI scans are used to shape movie trailers. He runs himself through the process, cracks a few jokes, and then zips off to the next setup. A discussion with a class of high school students suggests that the kids have thought more about the effect of advertising on their lives than Spurlock has. Making us aware of these things is not without value, but that’s a pretty weak peg to hang an entire film on.

Look, I won’t deny that the man’s intentions are honourable here. Much like in Super Size Me, he takes on the role of guinea pig for the social good, subjecting himself to an unnatural process so that we don’t have to (as if we ever would). He also wrestles with issues of art and commerce in the process, but that only results in the embarrassing sight of a middling artist contemplating his own integrity. It’s a bit like a gold fish discovering the little tree is plastic yet never realizing that he’s in a bowl. Spurlock’s world is already so limited—does it really matter if it also turns out to be fake?

But perhaps that’s unfair. Even lousy art has its own integrity. The problem is that Spurlock’s approach to the material is so relentlessly banal that there isn’t really anything to compromise. The film amounts to little more than a few abbreviated talking-head interviews, a couple of modestly amusing sketches, and the occasional generic montages (plus commercial breaks!). What’s he saying that might be jeopardized by the interference of commerce? Far too toothless to be a polemic, the film amounts to little more than, “Advertising is everywhere, it sucks, whattaya gonna do about it?” Spurlock settles for a nice walk in the woods. Well, bully for him.

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