With documentaries like Super Size Me and Where in the World Is Osama Bin Laden – or even his TV series 30 Days, filmmaker Morgan Spurlock has carved out a niche as ‘that guy’ who doesn’t much tear down American culture so much as poke at and deconstruct it, while somehow also celebrating it. (Or, at the very least, acknowledging our shared cultural complacency.)
In The Greatest Movie Ever Sold (actually titled POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold), Spurlock sets his cultural insights on a new target: the world of marketing and the advertising industry. However, in a fabulous twist, the filmmaker partners with the very brands and advertisers he hopes to examine in order to make the very movie which will expose their inner workings. But, as the old marketing adage goes, ‘any exposure is good exposure.’
The premise is this: Morgan Spurlock wants to know more about the world of marketing/branding/advertising – a world he has become increasingly close with since his filmmaking career took off. But shooting a traditional documentary wouldn’t be an effective way to peek inside the carefully-guarded doors of the marketing/advertising business. No, to truly get inside the business, Spurlock decides that he must go meta: he transforms his campaign to secure advertiser financing for his documentary into the subject of his documentary. And the result is a whole lot of ‘wink wink’ deconstructionist comedy.
Some people are turned off by documentaries because they feel that A) They are too preachy, B) They tend to be biased or slanted in some way, or C) The documentarian inserts him/herself into the film and is neither a trusted objective narrator, nor a universally loved character. The wonderfully refreshing thing about The Greatest Movie Ever Sold is that somehow in this twisted mess that Spurlock creates – where the roles of impartial observer, active participant, and total sellout become wholly amalgamated – a lot of the aforementioned objections to documentary filming ironically become null and void.
What we get is a fascinating experiment in meta-filmmaking that is both compulsively watchable and strangely balanced in terms of bias. If conservative viewers find their breath held fast when legendary consumer advocate/political icon Ralph Nader steps onscreen for an interview, they’ll be laughing out loud a minute later when Spurlock cleverly slips a moment of shameless product placement into Nader’s tirade against product placement, and totally hooks the longtime political pundit’s interest in the product. It’s both a moment of comedy gold and a sad revelation: advertising has become a force even more powerful than the two-headed beast of politics (gasp!).
What makes this film work, ultimately, is Spurlock himself. Making a meta-documentary is hard enough (as the term would imply), but without a ringmaster who is totally in control of the spin at all times, it would be impossible. Spurlock knows exactly how to play the different “characters” that are required of him at different times – and I mean that both literally and contractually. He knows exactly when to look at the camera and wink at us to let us in on yet another layer of meta-humor; he knows how to play his sleazy “pitch man” role straight while meeting with potential vendors and advertisers; he knows when to step back and play a more traditional documentarian role, providing us with actual facts about the world of advertising; he even knows when to turn his brain off completely to play the product-hocking caricature who is contractually obligated to place several actual commercials in his documentary. Finally, Spurlock is unafraid to call B.S. on himself; by the end of the film he freely admits that he himself no longer knows how tainted he’s become because of this process, or if he’s truly provided any great insight into our consumer culture, rather than simply selling out like so many others in Hollywood.
Speaking of Hollywood, The Greatest Movie Ever Sold has some wonderful cameos, including big name directors like Peter Berg, J.J. Abrams and Brett Ratner, as well as some of the leading names in movie marketing (product placement “specialists,” poster designers, etc…) who may not be familiar to the average person, but are known as demigods to all those in tinseltown who want their movie to succeed. Spurlock also ventures outside the movie biz to look at the larger picture of marketing/advertising “research,” which are some of the most interesting portions of the film. One scene involving a CAT san and an endless loop of commercials is straight out of A Clockwork Orange. Some additional bits include a trip to a South American town that has done away with all outdoor advertisements (a billboard-free metropolis is truly a revolutionary sight) and a Florida public school that has turned to shameless advertising in order to counter-balance the crippling budget cuts that are curtailing many academic programs.
POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold is something to see if only because it’s something that hasn’t really been done before. While it wisely avoids taking any serious political, moral or ethical stance, it does lose points for ultimately getting lost within in its own explorations, to that point that Spurlock’s final conclusions come off as somewhat weak and not that insightful. But then, it’s the nature of the beast he’s wrestling: we don’t yet have an answer for separating the often-parasitic business of marketing/advertising from our cultural DNA, so it would be foolish to assume that a guy selling out in order to let us in would have a simple answer for sale.
The film hits theaters in limited release on April 22nd.
Check out the trailer for POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold: