August 4, 2016
The Greatest Movie Ever Sold – US, 2010
It has now been almost twenty-four hours since I watched Morgan Spurlock’s The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, and in that short time, the movie have provoked much thought, not all of which has been positive. Some of my reflection has centered on the recent trend for some documentaries to be essentially recorded essays. They come with an attention-getting introduction that introduces an issue, state the director’s thesis, and then offer plenty of facts and anecdotes to convince the audience that the director’s opinion is correct. This is the genre that I would lump Michael Moore’s films into, as well as other films like Hometown and Taivalu: Taiwan vs. Tuvulu, both of which were more about the directors than what the synopses of the films suggested. This is also a genre that includes Morgan Spurlock’s films.
Now there’s nothing necessarily wrong with this genre, provided that the director is both knowledgeable and passionate about the topic at the center of the film. It also helps if the film makes it clear that what is discovered or covered in the film trumps the narrator, that he or she is simply a conduit through which the audience learns something significant. Spurlock’s debut film Super Size Me accomplished this admirably. That film had him investigating the effects of fast food on the human body, and, in an act that method actors all over the world must have applauded, he offered himself up as a human guinea pig. In The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, Spurlock investigates product placement in popular culture, and once again he casts himself as the subject of his film. This time, though, his efforts are misguided and much less involving.
In the film, Spurlock attempts to find financing for his next film. The pursuit involves making an amazing amount of phone calls to potential investors and, when one gives him the time of time, meeting with them to pitch the movie and explain what sponsors would get in return for their money. We see a number of these sales pitches and get a good sense of just what goes into them. After securing funding, Spurlock turns his attention to exploring the legal ramifications of having sponsors, and for a time the film becomes of who’s who of lawyers, members of corporations, and consumer advocates. Some of this is interesting, yet too much of it seems at cross purposes with its more involving parts.
In those parts, Spurlock takes the focus off of the film and puts it onto bigger, more intriguing issues. In one scene, we watch as Spurlock has his brain scanned to determine his “brand personality,” and it was truly shocking to see the scan reveal things that could be sold to him. I also was intrigued by a brief conversation about the thinning line between art and promotion, as well as one concerning the sad pursuit of sponsors by educational institutions. There is also an interesting bit in which a connection is made between visibility and credibility, and it is truly worrying that these two things are sometimes seen as synonymous. Personally, I could watch a separate documentary on each of these issues. Here, though, they are included as afterthoughts, temporary breaks from the main story, and few, if any, of them are explored in depth.
And this is a problem, for, while this technique worked in Super Size Me, it is much less successful here. Here, we are asked to invest in Spurlock’s attempts to make a movie and not sell out – or, as the film puts it, to buy in. We watch as he pitches ideas for commercials to his sponsors, creates promotional items for the film, and makes appearances on television promoting the very movie that we are watching. It is a technique that Salvador Dali might have found clever; I simply found it uninspiring.
Spurlock remains a talented and vibrant director, yet I have a feeling that the film would have been more effective with a different focus. Perhaps it would have been more interesting if Spurlock had followed an up-and-coming director to pitches to sponsors or if he had stuck to investigating the growing use of advertising as a stream of revenue in schools. What he has created here, while having some truly fascinating parts, is too jumbled to be meaningful and too smarmy to be involving. In fact, about forty-five minutes into the film, I began to wonder just what the sponsors were getting for their money. To me, that says a lot. (on DVD)
2 and a half stars