REVIEW: Morgan Spurlock Hawks Morgan Spurlock in POM Wonderful Presents The Greatest Movie Ever Sold
There's nothing less controversial than a documentary filmmaker pretending to be controversial. To make POM Wonderful Presents the Greatest Movie Ever Sold, Morgan Spurlock pounded the pavement, took to the phones and beat the bushes to find a number of corporate sponsors to help finance his documentary about -- what else? -- product placement in the movies. By being completely transparent about his motives, he'd expose the inner workings of the system and, possibly, reach some grand conclusion about the extent to which all moviegoers are constantly being sold to.
But that isn't really the subject of Spurlock's movie, and even he knows it. The subject of Spurlock's movie is Spurlock, and while he may be reasonably affable, and sometimes extremely goofy, it's a stretch to call him controversial. The Greatest Movie Ever Sold opens with Spurlock explaining, in a voice you might use if you were talking to a five-year-old, the basics of product placement and co-promotion: Fast-food chains offer Iron Man and Transformers tie-in toys, which in turn raises public awareness of those pictures (as if they needed it). Auto companies provide gleaming, sexy cars for movie heroes to drive, with the express intent that those vehicles will be so prominently displayed that no one could miss them. As of this writing, anyone born after April 20, 2011, will be shocked to learn that this is one of the ways in which Hollywood does business. The rest of us will pour a stiff drink into our Pebbles & Bam Bam Welch's Grape Jelly glass and call it a night.
Spurlock isn't telling us anything new, but at least he's energetic about telling us stuff that's old. He brings his camera crew into his meetings with numerous brand executives, as he tries to coax money out of them by outlining his plans for hawking their products in his upcoming product-placement opus. The makers of Ban deodorant listen, their eyes gleaming, as he outlines a scenario in which Spurlock -- the star of the whole show, of course -- opens his medicine cabinet to see that, naturally, it's filled with nothing but Ban. He envisions ways to promote the various offerings of Sheetz, a Pennsylvania-based chain of convenience stores and fueling centers, dazzling the down-to-earth executives seated around the table with his thrilling plans for decorating their soft-drink cups with the Spurlock visage. These guys are onto him, big-time: "Are you blowing sunshine up our ass?" one of them asks, skeptically yet jovially.
Of course he is, and everyone knows it. In the movie's falsest moment, he muses aloud: "How much influence are [these companies] going to have over the movie?" He's the filmmaker, and he doesn't want to lose control over his baby. But he does, of course, want the money. It's an argument with a false bottom: Spurlock pimps himself out in order to make a movie about how easy it is to sell out. He includes a few tsk-tsking interviews with the likes of Noam Chomsky and Ralph Nader, punking the latter by gifting him with a pair of Merrell shoes. (Merrell is one of the many sponsors courted for the movie.)
Then again, Spurlock isn't selling out, as he and his movie's tag line remind us. He's buying in. Zing! You could argue that Spurlock isn't trying to be a heavy-hitter. He's all about the gag, the gimmick, as he proved with his reasonably entertaining yet steadfastly annoying 2004 documentary Super Size Me, in which he gained some 25 pounds eating exclusively at McDonalds, just to prove how bad it is to eat exclusively at McDonald's. Like that movie, The Greatest Movie Ever Sold may be essentially harmless.
But it's also toothless. Spurlock's movie isn't nearly as daring as he thinks it is, and for sheer audacity, it doesn't come close to a stunt Dana Carvey pulled on his short-lived (and brilliant) mid-1990s TV show. The show was sponsored, Colgate Comedy Hour-style, by a different product every week. In the middle of The Dana Carvey Mountain Dew Show, he and one of his co-stars, Bill Chott, sit down at a table laid with one of those easily recognizable green cans, whose contents have, apparently, been poured into a glass. Eyeing the bright, rather concentrated-looking yellow liquid in the glass, Carvey asks Chott, "What does that look like to you?"
Chott offers various suggestions -- "Delicious mountain freshness?" "Cool, refreshing springtime in a glass?" -- but Carvey isn't having any of it. "No, what does that really look like?" he presses.
Eventually, they settle on an answer: "It looks exactly like liquid sunshine." Which, of course, it doesn't. Carvey succeeded in taking the piss out of his sponsor; Spurlock just plays, knowingly, right into his sponsors' hands. In POM Wonderful Presents The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, he isn't exposing the ugly underbelly of product placement; he's merely stroking it.