In this season of meta (Rubber, Scream 4), Morgan Spurlock trumps all. Leave it to the Super Size Me documentarian, who has made a career out of sacrificing his mind and body for his projects, to humorously sell out his dignity to corporations for the most painstakingly self-reflexive movie of any sort since Adaptation.
His POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold is, yes, exactly what that above-title sponsorship suggests it to be. Rightfully disturbed by the ubiquity of product placement in modern entertainment, Spurlock sets out to spoof that synchronous blend of corporate schilling and art by crafting a documentary about his attempts to accrue corporate sponsors for a documentary about his attempts to accrue corporate sponsors for a documentary. And on and on we go.
Though he covers some of the same populist territory, Spurlock’s cinematic M.O. has always been less about Michael Moore-style outrage than whimsical good-natured ribbing. Populated by sprightly graphics, upbeat narration and fast-paced set pieces, his movies are geared toward entertaining the masses, then making them think.
Here, after deviating a bit on Where in the World Is Osama Bin Laden?, his prior film, McDonalds’ public enemy no. 1 returns to comfortably lighthearted territory. Spurlock is the wrong filmmaker for exposes about government corruption or torture – he’s not Alex Gibney – but he’s right on the money for this sort of tongue-in-cheek look at pop cultural excesses.
Spurlock is on his game while shuttling between corporate boardrooms, where he hawks his shtick to receptive audiences at POM Wonderful and Ban Deodorant, among others – and not so receptive audiences elsewhere – and interviewing experts ranging from Donald Trump to Ralph Nader. In POM Wonderful, the filmmaker incorporates his most comfortable persona: The regular guy navigating a confusing world of glamorous brands and immaculate headquarters, simultaneously grappling with and indulging in the realities of our advertisement-driven culture.
Even as the Academy Award nominee begins his tongue-in-cheek capitulation to his sponsors (non-POM drinks are blurred, Mini Coopers take over the road), his sly, knowing smirk invites us to laugh along. Spurlock inspires our investment with his “train wreck” approach, pointedly spiraling down the rabbit whole of whoredom to such an unhealthy extent that he essentially becomes a walking, talking ad, an automaton defined by whatever he’s contractually obligated to sell.
There are no great revelations in POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, but then there aren’t meant to be. This is a playful documentary and a piece of performance art, but hardly a groundbreaking expose. Still, beneath the self-reflexivity there is a message: Advertisements define the world, shape our lives and generally affect us in ways we might not notice. It’s time, Spurlock says, to start paying attention.
The Upside: This is pretty much vintage Spurlock – a playful documentary that’s funny, insightful and cleverly put together.
The Downside: The story it tells and the conclusions it reaches are not exactly earth-shattering.
On the Side: On April 27, the town of Altoona, PA will be renamed POM Wonderful Presents the Greatest Movie Ever Sold, PA for 60 days.