Review: ‘The Greatest Movie Ever Sold’

It washes horse hair AND human hair. Sony Pictures Classics
It washes horse hair AND human hair. Sony Pictures Classics

Morgan Spurlock's "The Greatest Movie Ever Sold" -- it's officially called "POM Wonderful Presents The Greatest Movie Ever Sold," but I'm going to ignore that for the same reason I don't call the Rose Bowl "The Rose Bowl Game Presented By Vizio" -- has many smart, important and rarely considered ideas in it, serious questions about how commercialism has taken over our public discourse and is slowly turning us into credit-card swiping, vapid automatons. It also has many, many scenes with Morgan Spurlock in it. This movie is a battle between what it has to say, and who is the one saying it. What it has to say ultimately wins. Barely.

2. This is no offense to Spurlock, who is a likable enough fellow with his heart in the right place. But this a doctoral thesis in search of a movie. Spurlock, who of course made "Super Size Me" (which he wants you to remember) and "Where in the World Is Osama Bin Laden?" (which he'd rather you forget), makes films like an essayist who just can't help but make himself the center of whatever he's writing about and justifies it by saying, "It's just an honest portrayal of my experience; I'm standing in for the audience/reader!" With "The Greatest Movie Ever Sold," he has taken this to its logical extension: He has made an entire movie that's solely about him trying to make a movie. But that his insights into our commercial culture are somewhat accidental and fleeting doesn't make them any less powerful.

3. The premise of "The Greatest Movie Ever Sold" is a limp one; Spurlock, trying to finance his movie, decides to try to make "the documentary 'Iron Man 2'" by having corporate sponsors pop up throughout the film, like in blockbuster Hollywood movies. This leads to a few enjoyable moments (watching executives at regional convenience store chain Sheetz stare at Spurlock like he's a moron) and some memorable characters (I think I want POM Wonderful CEO Lynda Resnick to be my grandmother), but it's rather predictable and repetitive. On one level: Who cares that there's advertising in films? Is this a vital issue facing our nation? (Besides, New York Magazine covered this in far better detail in a feature three years ago.) This isn't helped by Spurlock's disingenuousness about his own brand; at one point, he goes to promotional specialists to figure out what he "represents" to a consumer. The obvious answer, of course, is "the guy who made that movie about how terrible McDonald's food is for you." There's a reason that a health drink is sponsoring this movie, that's all I'm saying. Spurlock has one default performance mode: Befuddled "who-me?"-ism. Here on film three, it's a bit unbecoming. Even Michael Moore doesn't pretend no one knows who he is anymore.

4. After we've watched a series of "pitch meetings" that produce diminishing returns, about 45 minutes in, "The Greatest Movie Ever Sold" finds its groove. Spurlock transfers his gaze from himself to the creeping prevalence of advertising itself, what it's trying to tell us about ourselves, how it's changing us, how we absorb so much advertising every second that we're in danger of experiencing anything that isn't in some way tied to the financial well-being of a massive global corporation. It affects everything, from schools (one of which sells ad space in its gym to a tattoo parlor), to love (which Don Draper famously called "invented by guys like me to sell nylons"), to one's personal worth and emotional stability. This has been around forever, of course, but take one look at your television, your cellphone, heck, outside your window and see if you can find a 100 square foot space that doesn't have an advertisement on it. This is getting worse, and it's a bigger deal than we think. In one particularly compelling scene, Spurlock visits a company called Buyology, which gauges what audiences want from their movie trailers using the terrifying term "neuromarketing." The company attaches sensors to your skull to determine what the human brain reacts to, positively or negatively, and cuts their trailers accordingly. "It's the next logical field for us," says the company's CEO, with a smile he doesn't think is evil, but is. The late Bill Hicks once said, "if anyone here is in marketing or advertising, kill yourself." We live in the age he was warning about.

5. The most moving scene in the film is when Spurlock travels to Sao Paulo, Brazil, which, four years ago, enforced a ban on public advertising, citing it as a public nuisance. This sounds like a no-trans-fat nanny-state publicity stunt, and Spurlock (who just can't help himself) treats it like one, interviewing people on the street about how much happier their lives are, patting them, and himself, on the back. Thing is, though: They do look happier, and their buildings and public space have a vibrant life, full of imagination and clarity, that we have long since forgotten. It has become impossible to break through the clutter, and Spurlock, sometimes in spite of himself (and definitely in spite of his film's underlying gimmick), illustrates how, in a lot of ways, it's costing us a large part of our soul. I'm not sure Spurlock is the guy who should be making this case, but hey, I don't see anybody else doing it.

Grade: B