April 29, 2011

Greatest movie ever fails to live up to its name

After stating the obvious in his debut documentary Supersize Me (2004), namely that eating McDonalds for thirty days is not good for you, Morgan Spurlock has gained a reputation as a nonthreatening troublemaker. His documentaries aren’t as polemic as Michael Moore’s or as frustratingly softball as most investigative journalism fare on television. Instead, Spurlock’s projects lie somewhere in the middle—entertaining, thought-provoking, but ultimately safe. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with this approach. It works marvelously in Spurlock’s latest film, POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, a delightfully subversive examination of the relationship between advertising and entertainment.

Product placement in film, television, and music has become an increasingly lucrative practice, and Spurlock decides to examine the practice firsthand by inviting various businesses to sponsor his film about his attempts to get various businesses to sponsor his film. It’s all very meta.

The idea is that Spurlock will expose all the nefarious ways in which companies go about promoting their products to consumers who have been able to bypass commercials thanks to a little thing called TiVo. And so we watch the intrepid Spurlock, sporting his signature walrus mustache, go from company to company asking them to be in his movie. Reactions range from the politely disinterested to the emphatically enthusiastic. Interspersed between Spurlock’s pitches to various companies about how their products will appear in his film are interviews with college professors (who worry about the effect all of this advertising will have on the children), and media insiders who invite Spurlock into their huge, sprawling houses to talk about how badass they are. Spurlock also interviews famous directors to hear their takes on product placement and whether or not it stifles their art. One amusing anecdote comes from Quentin Tarantino, who reveals that the chain restaurant Denny’s shut him down repeatedly when he asked to shoot some of his most famous movies in their restaurant.

As Spurlock conducts these interviews, he drinks POM Wonderful pomegranate juice, the official sponsor of the movie, who we see being wooed by Spurlock earlier in the film. He wears Merrell shoes and tries on clothes at Old Navy, all companies who signed on to pay for the production of the film.

He also takes a trip to São Paolo, Brazil, where the city’s planner recently outlawed all outdoor advertising. The city looks curiously empty. There are no billboards, no sprawling ads on taxis, only graffiti to mar the sides of city buildings. The city looks strange, like an ancient relic from a quanit tropical city. In contast to the sensory overload of the film's earlier shots of Times Square, São Paolo is a solemn reminder of how pervasive advertisting is. A city without it looks odd, and a little empty. The city planner expresses how important it is that people be able to see nature. As for the local businesses, "We realy a lot on referrals," says one shopkeeper.

But the most frightening aspect of the documentary isn’t the lack of outdoor advertising in the city of São Paolo. It’s Spurlock’s investigation of the latest fad in advertising, neuromarketing. In neuromarketing, scientists study the brain activity of participants as they watch commercials. According to the German scientist Spurlock interviews, watching a thirty-second clip of a Coca-Cola ad releases the neurotransmitter dopamine, giving the viewer the warm fuzzies. Conclusion: Advertising is an addiction: It creates a need we didn’t have before and the world is going to hell in a handbasket.

Well, not exactly. The Greatest Movie Ever Sold doesn’t ask any tough, existential questions. It’s good-natured and ambivalent, which makes it an enjoyable, witty watch, but ultimately quite forgettable–like a clever television commercial.