Movies » Reviews

Morgan Spurlock's product-placement screed is a brand without an identity

The Product Sells Itself



According to the ads for Morgan Spurlock's The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, a documentary whose budget was raised entirely through product placement and in-movie advertising, the director "isn't selling out, he's buying in." Ostensibly, Spurlock, having tackled obesity and Islamophobia in his first two films, now means to fight the omnipresence of corporate branding. The official title of the film is Pom Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold. According to Spurlock, the pomegranate juice manufacturer paid a million dollars for the privilege, although their cash came with a host of demands, including final cut.

You could accuse Spurlock of hypocrisy, but his featherweight film isn't worth the trouble. It comes when advertising has never been more ubiquitous, even as technologies such as DVRs are enabling people to ignore it. In urban areas, any kid with a spray can can put his own spin on ads and reclaim public space. Spurlock acknowledges these developments only by traveling to Sao Paulo, a city which has banned public advertising. While he wastes time getting Noam Chomsky's and Donald Trump's predictable thoughts on selling out — guess who favors rock bands selling their music to commercials — Naomi Klein, author of the definitive No Logo, is conspicuously absent from Spurlock's many interview subjects.

Which points out one of the movie's biggest failings: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold is fundamentally lazy. At first, the device of placing a can of Pom juice in every shot or staging interviews in Sheetz restaurants is amusing. But it quickly grows as tiresome as the unironic real thing. And while Spurlock's roster of guests is impressively eclectic — find another film featuring interviews with Quentin Tarantino, Ralph Nader and Outkast rapper Big Boi — only Nader stands out because Spurlock seems genuinely interested in what he has to say. Elsewhere, the film succumbs to a soundbite sensibility, allowing its subjects only time to make one point or tell one anecdote. The speakers might as well be brand-name soda cans, except they're short on fizz.

The movie does take one brand very seriously, however: the star-director's. Spurlock worries how people's perceptions of him will be changed by his corporate partnerships. Apart from Michael Moore, how many other American documentarians even have a name identity that could be damaged? Would anyone care if Barbara Kopple or Frederick Wiseman directed a McDonald's commercial? Here, the worst aspects of auteurism combine with the dictates of branding. Spurlock lacks Moore's demagogic impulses, but he's no less concerned with building a cult of personality around himself.

Spurlock gives lip service to serious issues, especially marketing to children and teenagers. But in the end, The Greatest Movie Ever Sold is largely about the effects of capitalism on himself. The director-star's marketing team even cast him as Jesus in "street art" posters distributed to promote the film. He can't imagine any solutions to out-of-control consumerism — a world where, as Nader says, the only escape from advertising is in sleep — so he simply suggests we take a walk. You can see the final punchline coming from a mile away. Jesus™ wept.


Add a comment