Morgan Spurlock's new documentary, The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, has a great deal in common with the film that put Spurlock on the map, 2004's Super Size Me. In both, Spurlock has one point to make—a point that's crushingly obvious and not particularly brave, shocking or controversial—and spends the entire movie making it over and over again.
Just as Super Size Me made the earth-shattering case that eating every meal at McDonalds is bad for your health, The Greatest Movie Ever Sold tackles the world of product placement in movies and TV shows, and the prevalence of advertising itself in American culture.
The movie's gimmick is that Spurlock is attempting to pay for his movie entirely with product placement deals—so the film itself consists of the director meeting with potential sponsors and shilling for their products, often doing both at the same time.
If that gimmick sounds familiar, it's because in Wayne's World, a movie that came out 20 years ago, there's a two-minute comedy bit in which Wayne and Garth mock product placement while garishly engaging in it themselves.
It doesn't speak well of Spurlock's film that Wayne and Garth made the same point more astutely in two minutes than he did in 90 minutes, or that the point he is trying to make in 2011 was obvious enough to be the focus of a throwaway gag in a Hollywood comedy from 1991.
Yes, movies and TV shows have product placement in them. Sometimes, it's distracting; other times, it's done in an underhanded or dishonest manner.
But I made my peace with that fact years ago, and I imagine most other people did, as well. The failure of Spurlock's film is that he has nothing new or interesting to say about any of it.
Advertising and marketing are extremely fascinating subjects. The success of Mad Men, for one, is proof of that. But The Greatest Movie Ever Sold delves into this only shallowly, and honestly, the director won't get out of the way of his own movie.
There was a similar problem in Spurlock's previous film, 2008's Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden? If that movie had actually been about the hunt for and failure to catch Bin Laden, it actually would've been interesting. Instead, it was 90 minutes of Spurlock wandering around the Middle East like an uninformed imbecile before reaching the most simplistic, toothless conclusion imaginable—that everyone in the world should try to get along better.
The director is clearly heavily influenced by Michael Moore, not so much politically as in a compulsion to make himself the on-camera center of attention in all his films.
There's a lot of Nick Broomfield, too, in Spurlock's self-deprecation; I kept expecting to see that scene, a staple in Broomfield's documentaries, in which the director gets the on-camera phone call that he's lost his funding for the film.
But the director is far from the most annoying presence in the film. Spurlock has collected the most diverse collection of talking heads I've ever seen in a documentary—and most of them are people who made me want to throw my coffee cup at the screen.
In addition to several man-on-the-street interviews with the sort of ranting, bearded New York hipsters that used to make me cross the street to get away from them, there's loathsome figures of the right (Donald Trump), the left (Ralph Nader, Noam Chomsky) and Hollywood (various product placement gurus, plus two of the worst directors of blockbusters in the world, Brett Ratner and Peter Berg).
When Berg cheerfully admits that GE is his boss, it's the most honest moment in the entire movie.
Missed opportunities abound. There's an interview with Quentin Tarantino in a movie about product placement, but no mention of the memorable fake products—Green Apple cigarettes, Jack Rabbit Slim's—that he put in Pulp Fiction.
And Subway sandwich ads on Chuck are treated as a garish example of blatant product shilling, when, in fact, the Subway deal was part of a fan-driven campaign that helped the show avoid cancellation after its first season.
Then there's a scene where the director visits a city in Brazil that has banned all outdoor advertising. We're supposed to think that the city is now a pristine metropolis, free of Madison Avenue's lies, but I thought it looked deserted and ugly. Guess what—advertising can add character to cities.
Who wants to see Boston without the Citgo sign? New York without the Met Life building?
Morgan Spurlock has some talent as a filmmaker. But it's about time he tried making a film where he isn't in every frame. Until then, there were about 30 documentaries released in the last year—start with Exit Through the Gift Shop, Inside Job, Client 9, The Tillman Story and Restrepo, all currently available on DVD—much more worthy of your attention than this one.
The Silver Screen Rating: 1 stars (out of 5)
Roll Credits: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold
Directed by: Morgan Spurlock
Film Genre: Documentary
Length: 1 hour 30 minutes