Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Movie Review: Super Size Me

Eat only McDonald's food for 30 days and see what the results will be. In Super Size Me, film-maker Morgan Spurlock does just that and the results are sickening and hilarious, creating a voyeuristic appeal that helps to drive this movie forward. The premise behind this independently made documentary grabs people so instantly that it has helped to make it incredibly popular in a short amount of time.

However, there is much more to this film than just the scenes of Spurlock ramming burgers down his throat and turning into a bloated, lethargic oaf. The film is mainly a look at the problem of obesity in the US as spurred on by the obscene amounts of money food giants spend on advertising as well as their influence over government policies through lobbying (i.e. more money.) Built around the 30-day schtick, it is an effective and engaging film.

Yanks are a nation of bloated slobs who keep cramming it in. The number of overweight yanks has doubled since 1980 and obesity now ranks as 2nd to smoking in terms of number of preventable deaths every year.

Because of the ever-increasing availability of inexpensive video equipment and film editing tools that can be adapted to a moderately priced computer, the documentary film genre is set to explode. Spurlock will serve as another motivator to every clod with a half-baked idea and some extra cash and time on his hands. The risk within the field of documentaries, and one that yank filmmakers seem ever prone to, is passing off contrived or staged events as reality in hopes of bolstering the popularity of the film. Get 'em in the seats and standards be damned. Likely some such term as "docutainment" has already been coined to describe the trend.

Spurlock steers surprisingly clear of this despite what the film's premise might suggest. Except for a vomiting scene that was probably induced, all other interviews and filmed interactions seem genuine. Bloated-hog-on-the-street interviews are as spontaneous as one could expect, and with Spurlock's wit, which is subtle and never mocking, there are some truly funny scenes. I also have to believe that the health effects of his month-long binge are real as documented by the 3 physicians who appear throughout. After the huge amount of publicity the film has received I am sure lawyers from McDonalds demanded verification of various health indicators as mentioned in the film under threat of lawsuit.

The surprise the doctors show regarding the sudden nosedive in the filmmaker's overall health seems authentic as well. During the month-long binge, his blood pressure, cholesterol and uric acid levels, as well as various liver indicators all sky-rocket while he bloats up in the process, going from a fairly healthy 185 lbs. to 208 lbs.

The film ticks along smoothly and this is a testament to the effort made during its filming and production. I suspect that Spurlock has studied film-making and the final product likely represents a year or more of work. He looks at the problem of obesity as driven by fast food giants from various angles including the addictive aspects, the insidious advertising techniques that hook children at a young age and even the booming subculture of fad diets. The white trash redemption fantasy no longer just includes drug and alcohol users. The fatsos are in on it now as well, with their own group of minor celebrities who have accomplished rapid weight loss and now are revered by other bloated fools who don't have what it takes to shed the pounds.

Spurlock has a knack for attracting freakish characters to be interviewed during the film...though yanks as a whole seem to be able to smoothly transition into the role of being in front of the cameras. It's almost as if they have been rehearsing their roles their whole life in case the opportunity arises. The rail-thin wacko who has consumed close to 20, 000 Big Macs and the manic son of a famous ice-cream maker are 2 in a range of interesting and entertaining interviews that are interspersed throughout.

Numerous clips in which Spurlock is followed into various McDonald's outlets by one of his partners who is filming the scenes, are hilarious as well. In the process they demonstrate the apparent requisite that to work for the peddlers of swill in the US you must be a swollen ox yourself. A strange contrast to Thailand where gorgeous women, often perfect tens, regularly staff the counters at various fast food joints. Again Spurlock shows a knack for thinking on his feet and often delivers a few subtle jabs that the po-faced slobs fail to catch.

There are plenty of interesting trivia bits and statistics doled out regarding McDonalds, including the fact that they control 43% of the fast food market in the US, have 30, 000 outlets world-wide and their own company jargon refers to customers who regularly frequent their restaurants as "heavy users."

While the graphics are often schlocky and amateurish, as would be expected, there are a series of what seem like original paintings that are shown momentarily as an introduction to various spiels on social issues, such as addiction that stem from the central topic of the film. Each one of the garish paintings features a bastardized, sinister looking Ronald McDonald appearing as though he is set to partake in some deviant activity. This is just one of the many nice touches that adds to the film.

The arrogance of McDonald's management and their failure to see this film as a looming public relations disaster is another enjoyable surprise, as Spurlock is casually brushed off no fewer than 15 times as he tries to arrange an interview with someone from their corporatre headquarters.

Even after viewing this well thought-out and researched documentary, the tendency of many will be the stock response to any serious effort to look at the underlying causes of obesity. Derision, mockery and assaults on the characters of those who don't have the will power to stop jeering their greedy mugs into the trough and slurping up pig-sized portions of unhealthy food. Any number of variations on "they don't have to eat there, eat as much...use some willpower ya fat bastids! etc." This attitude comes up a number of times throughout the film though never encouraged by Spurlock. He shows empathy for these people and his film makes a person think twice about piling on the poor fools who are destined to a shorter life anyway.

Looking beyond the simplistic explanations that make the rest of us feel superior seems to be a running theme throughout Super Size Me. In what is the most annoying aspect of the film, Spurlock's cheerful yet irritating girlfriend hectors him regarding the unhealthy side effects of his month-long experiment, culminating in a tearful and maudlin phone conversation after one of his final visits to the team of physicians in which the scope of his mounting health problems become apparent. Though choosing to make himself endure the marathon of self-punishment simply to make his film as authentic and intriguing as possible, in the process he demonstrates that despite the rankist, smug judgement of others, where we end up is not always down to superficial and dismissive reasons.