Sony // 2011 // 87 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Jennifer Malkowski (Retired) // August 29th, 2011
Morgan Spurlock: "Where can I go that I don't see one bit of
Ralph Nader: "To sleep."
Morgan Spurlock, the mischievous muckraker who brought us Super Size Me, offers up another corporation-centered documentary, this time focusing on advertising and especially the power advertisers have over the movie industry. The Greatest Movie Ever Sold [Blu-ray] chronicles Spurlock's quest to make a "doc-buster" partnered with as many brands as possible, brimming with product placements, and about product placement.
All this is supposed to be a very clever, meta, and illuminating. In the end, though, a movie about the process of negotiating sponsorship deals with corporations is about as exhilarating as that premise sounds. Spurlock's own "brand" of gleeful, socially conscious antics does help, but not enough.
Spurlock is interested in exploring the intimate links between big-budget Hollywood productions and their corporate partners -- the ones that plaster a big-screen superhero onto cans of soda and bags of fast food and, in turn, put brand name cans of soda and bags of fast food prominently onto the big screen in that superhero's movie. Rather than making a straight-up talking-heads documentary about the subject, though, Spurlock dives into the belly of the beast and tries to get his own movie this kind of corporate sponsorship.
The process of seeking such sponsorship becomes the story of The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, as we watch Spurlock going from pitch to pitch in various conference rooms with various executives. Interspersed with these pitches are a few more traditional documentary segments on the issue itself, with tangential looks at topics like Sao Paulo's ban on outdoor advertising and desperate public school districts in the United States selling advertising space on their athletic fields and inside school buses.
Spurlock's concept of a documentary with extreme brand integration and tons of corporate co-promotion is certainly novel. Every summer fiction blockbuster seems to flood the fast food restaurants and convenience stores with the images of its protagonists, but I'm not exactly expecting Frederick Wiseman's next release on budget cuts in higher education to generate a line of Happy Meal toys. Novel or not, Spurlock's new film that aspires to be a "docbuster" can't live up to the bona fide docbuster that made him famous in the first place: Super Size Me.
Greatest falters on its own, but suffers especially in comparison with Super Size. In his earlier doc, Spurlock was a delightful renegade, pursuing a familiar lefty issue -- the evils of giant corporations and of fast food -- in a gutsy, non-lefty way: by eating McDonald's food himself, nonstop. He combined the sobriety of documentary investigation with the delirium of reality TV stunts, and audiences loved it. There was something so sick and engrossing and absolutely convincing about this filmmaker-turned-guinea-pig gimmick. It was made all the better by Spurlock's initial childlike delight in getting to eat McDonald's all the time -- a refreshing admission that chicken nuggets still taste way better than organic heirloom tomatoes to a lot of us liberals, even if we don't want to financially support fast food or clog our arteries. In Super Size, Spurlock blended his highly entertaining McDonald's binges with well-researched informational segments on the larger issues of fast food's effect on America's health and economy.
The Greatest Movie Ever Sold employs the same basic formula: informational segments on a social issue are interspersed with the story of Spurlock himself undertaking some crazy project that puts him at the center of that issue. However, both elements in Greatest feel rather weak. The informational segments really didn't tell me much I didn't already know about how advertising works in the movies (and I wouldn't have called myself an expert going in) and the "Spurlock's crazy project" segments really weren't that crazy at all. Watching a pale and miserable Spurlock struggle through a Super Sized McDonald's meal and then puke it up moments later just made for greater movie drama than watching Spurlock talk to his lawyer about clauses in his sponsorship contracts. Surprise, surprise: corporate executives tend to be just a tiny bit guarded when they're in a meeting with someone like Spurlock and his camera crew, so they don't really say much that's entertaining. Spurlock doesn't have Michael Moore's knack for finding people who will say ridiculous things on camera and then prompting them to do so -- or perhaps he doesn't have the interest.
Even the element of personal peril to the filmmaker transfers over from Super Size Me, but this time Spurlock positions himself as being in danger of losing his soul rather gaining some love handles. This, too, feels a bit forced, perhaps because I didn't buy Spurlock's creeping realization that entangling his career in as much corporate sponsorship as possible could mean a sacrifice of his ideals. He's too smart not to have figured that out long ago.
Perhaps the most damaging aspect of The Greatest Movie Ever Sold's setup is that by accepting so much corporate sponsorship, Spurlock saps his own ability to criticize either the corporations he signs with or corporate sponsorship itself. What seems like it should be a muckraking exposé about the dilution of creative freedom that this practice causes thus becomes a not-far-enough-from-neutral documentary that seeks to inform rather than persuade, merely creating "transparency" about the process it explores. While there are virtues in that documentary approach, it's not what I want or expect from a political filmmaker like Spurlock who has done very good persuasive documentary work in the past -- not just with Super Size Me, but also with the heartfelt and compelling TV series 30 Days. Spurlock includes a suggestive line from an ad guy he talks to that combats this reading of the film: "I love the idea that you're selling out, you're admitting to selling out, and therefore not selling out." I've heard that one before, and I remain unconvinced.
All this being said, Spurlock does still manage to infuse some of his signature levity into The Greatest Movie Ever Sold that make it more enjoyable viewing than it would have been if undertaken by a different filmmaker. The film's best running gag starts early on when Spurlock is trolling a New York drug store for products that might sponsor his film and comes upon a shampoo called Mane 'n' Tail that has the unique and truly hilarious distinction of being marketed to both horses and humans simultaneously. This discovery leads to a minor obsession with the product and eventually the creation of a commercial spot that Spurlock puts into the movie in which he sits in a bathtub washing the hair of both his (fake) son and his tiny Shetland pony. Also, the Ralph Nader interview -- which is the film's best and is, wisely, sampled heavily -- provides a surprising number of chuckles.
Sony offers up a fine Blu-ray release for Greatest, with a nice technical presentation and a generous slate of extras, but neither of these would really compel me to pick up the high-def version over the standard DVD for a film like this one. The footage Spurlock's crew shoots for the film looks pretty good -- showcasing all those corporate logos and products in their crisp, Blu-ray perfection -- though the archival material Spurlock brings in (mostly commercials) varies in quality. Sound quality is clear, presenting dialogue and music tracks well.
The extras here are numerous for a documentary, but many suffer from a strange problem: since the film itself is basically a making-of documentary about the making of this documentary, additional making-of extras feel a bit gratuitous. This is especially true about the commentary track with Spurlock and several of his crew members, which I actually found kind of irritating. Spurlock becomes decidedly less charming when asked to talk for 90 minutes straight about his work and teamed up with his colleagues/buddies, and his unbelievably frequent (mis)use of the word "literally" made me want to literally call him up and ask him politely to remove the word literally from his vocabulary. You can hear still more about the making of this making-of doc in the 15-minute featurette on the film's premiere at Sundance and in two additional featurettes showing how Spurlock's own commercials within the film were produced (9 minutes total). Those commercials are also extracted from the film and included as a standalone extra, along with a couple of other promotional tidbits that did not appear in the movie itself. Lastly, we get a whopping 48 minutes of additional scenes, which should be enjoyable for those who liked the film. These include scenes of Spurlock asking many of his interviewees to talk about their favorite commercials and also an extended look at the psych interview Spurlock undergoes to pinpoint his brand identity, including real-time commentary on the interview by the agency's director.
Though he racks up a number of new corporate partners in The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, Spurlock's best has always been and will always be his unwilling corporate partner: McDonald's. Greatest can't top Super Size Me, largely because Spurlock is much more fun and subversive when tearing down corporations than when giving them a boost (which, ultimately, this movie is actually doing).
Guilty. I've seen much greater "sold" movies, and Spurlock's were better when they weren't.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 87 Minutes
Release Year: 2011
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Deleted Scenes
* Official Site