Morgan Spurlock’s new movie, a documentary about product placement, was paid for by and therefore is partially about its own 22 official sponsors. That number is telling if only because Spurlock says he tried for more than 600 sponsors altogether. These 22 were the ones whose brand personalities proved mutually compatible, and compatible with Spurlock’s own brand personality, here assessed as “mindful/playful.”
Well, it’s true: Who better to pull off a stunt like this than the maker of “Super Size Me” and “Where in the World Is Osama bin Laden?” Having built a career from facetiously examining that which is — whether in foresight or in hindsight — self-evident, Spurlock deserves a promotion, from Captain Obvious to Major Obvious.
And so with “POM Wonderful Presents (Morgan Spurlock’s) The Greatest Movie Ever Sold,” he wallows wittily in the now ubiquitous advertising scheme by which the makers of products pay to have them favored by the makers of movies (which are also products). Spurlock has helped himself to a big swig from what one of his commentators calls the holy grail of marketing: “co-promotion.” The substance of his film is the process of racking up those sponsors. And while it is sort of irritating to have to keep typing out “POM Wonderful Presents (Morgan Spurlock’s) The Greatest Movie Ever Sold,” it is also a relief to report that the film itself is very entertaining.
Spurlock’s poseur-activist routine already has proven highly salable. Born in 1970, he seems to be what happened when the “children of Marx and Coca-Cola,” as Jean-Luc Godard called the young adults of the late ’60s, had children of their own. It takes a special kind of attention seeker to have so much fun with the symbiosis of marketing and entertainment; for a stunt-movie, this has a rare opulence, in which Spurlock plainly revels. It’s almost a kind of sensualism, or at least something closer to that than his previous films suggested he’d ever get. Like Natalie Portman’s callow hysteria in “Black Swan,” it is more or less one-note, impressively sustained and possibly the best description of its expresser’s talent that we ever can hope for.
He really makes you think, people tend unthinkingly to say of Spurlock. As for making you feel, he seems generally limited to the feeling you get when an eager friend is telling you an occasionally boring story and yet you say, “Wow, that’s crazy,” because it’s only occasionally boring and it’s still a friend and you want to be a good listener.
Spurlock doesn’t say much about the history of creative patronage. He sticks mostly to his own racket. He worries that cashing in on his brand affinities might cost him control of his movie. There is something in the notion of Spurlock anguishing over his artistic integrity and trying not to sell out that requires a certain suspension of disbelief. But there is something in his personality that makes it a willing suspension. He has sage counsel on these matters from the likes of Ralph Nader and Noam Chomsky, but doesn’t really need their help. In one typical and masterful display of innate ingenuity, Spurlock pitches some cheeky ad spots to his POM overlords, who reject them in favor of bloodless brand bolstering; yet he still manages to get his visual quips into the world by making a movie scene about their rejection.
Not that he’s wholly unlimited. Later, mostly just to check it out, Spurlock visits São Paulo, Brazil, where a law against “visual pollution” has eliminated all advertisements in public places. It’s sort of nice. Of course they also had a law like that in Germany in the 1930s, and we know what happened there. Does Spurlock not bring this up because he didn’t know about it or because of that weird clause in one of his contracts expressly prohibiting him from disparaging the entire country of Germany?
Meanwhile the anthem he commissions from OK Go doesn’t quite score, except in the sense that it has the hollow, uninspired tone of a purely mercenary assignment and maybe is therefore perfect.
Anyway, as Spurlock’s story advances, much of the “Wow, that’s crazy” factor has less to do with regular rules of the product placement game than with the meta-narrative complications of a product-placement-funded film about product placement. The journalistic usefulness declines as the fun adds up. And neither we nor Spurlock’s corporate underwriters could ask for a better, more mindful/playful, more gleefully self-corrupted guide.