At last night’s Hot Docs opening and Canadian premiere screening of Morgan Spurlock’s POM Wonderful Presents the Greatest Movie Ever Sold the peppy logo-clad filmmaker told the audience his film will have the effect of changing the way we look at advertising, TV, and films. Maybe Spurlock has been hanging out with a different crowd recently, because his grasp of audience intelligence—especially a doc audience—is certainly off the mark in terms of advertising savvy. While his film, as hilarious and entertaining as it is, won’t be affecting the way I look at advertising, it definitely changes the way I now look at Morgan Spurlock.
Spurlock is a master story-teller to be sure, and this was readily apparent in one of the funniest, rollicking Q&As I’ve had the pleasure to sit through. Story after story rolled off his lips in all manner of imitation and animation – and had pretty much all in attendance slapping knees and grabbing sides in fits of laughter. His 2004 doc-buster hit Super Size Me told the story of one man’s experiment to eat only McDonald’s food while suffering the consequences. His 30 Days television series was a masterpiece jewel in the cheap tin crown of reality television fare. With all these storytelling accomplishments and talent under his belt his most recent work, a 90 minute celebration of advertising, marketing and commercialization bereft of any engaging narrative, comes as a whopping disappointment.
Don’t get me wrong – if you want funny, entertaining, inquisitive Spurlock you’ll get your dose in this documentary about sponsorship in film. But if you’re looking for critical analysis or an investigative lens you’ll be very disappointed. Spurlock’s film is the ultimate postmodern documentary – a film paid for by corporate sponsors about the business of financing films through corporate sponsorship. On the surface it’s a great idea, but Spurlock doesn’t scratch that surface to reveal the real “inner workings” of the business or the consequences of a social reality dominated by advertising and marketing. As one audience member said to him, the film is all joy – where are the questions? Spurlock, predictably upbeat responded that if the audience is uneasy about these things after watching The Greatest Movie Ever Sold than the film has done its job. Right.
As a postmodern self-reflexive work there is surprisingly little self-reflection in PWPTGMES. Spurlock is in almost every frame of the film – flogging his film idea to ad execs, flogging products, and making light of critical voices like Ralph Nader. Between getting free stuff, zipping around the country meeting rich people (why Donald Trump’s opinion was sought in this film remains a mystery), and drinking litres and litres of POM juice, Spurlock apparently has little time to really critically explore the nature of what he’s doing and what the whole thing is about. Sure he has his moments of wondering aloud if he’s going too far down the rabbit hole, but they feel as forced and staged as his meetings with CEOs and marketing gurus (all shot with atrocious camera work it has to be said). One senses that he went into this much like he went into Super Size Me: as a personal challenge and experiment, just to see if he could do it. And, lo and behold, of course he can – he’s Morgan Spurlock after all.
The first half of the film had me in stitches as he set up the gag. But by mid-way I was bored of watching Spurlock in predictable scenarios flogging everything from shoes to under-arm deodorant to airlines. I kept waiting for him to go deeper, to really provoke some critical thought on the issue of advertising and marketing. By the end of the film, this craving went unabated, much like my new craving to drink POM juice – thanks to what has to be the best marketing coup for a juice company since Dole colonized Carmen Miranda.
So if you’re looking for a funny, intelligent, provocative and critical documentary on advertising and marketing I highly recommend seeking out the wonderful 2004 czech film Czech Dream. If you want to laugh with and at Morgan Spurlock as he makes a mint from celebrating crass commercialism, check out POM Wonderful Presents The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, which is playing in theatres in the US and hits cinemas in Canada today.