Release Date: April 22, 2011 MPAA Rating: PG-13
Morgan Spurlock is a savvy salesman. The man behind Super Size Me knows his biggest asset to his films is his own outsized personality. Spurlock the director recognizes Spurlock the performer–part carnival barker, part crash test dummy–is charming and engaging enough to tackle thorny social issues with goofy, self-effacing wit instead of ponderous self-seriousness. It is with childlike enthusiasm that Spurlock throws himself full-bore into The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, a “documentary” (although none of the connotations attached to that genre really apply) about rampant product placement in television and movies. Its gimmick is at once juvenile and kind of genius: what if Spurlock could make a movie that explores the phenomenon of media selling out to corporations and actually get the entire production financed only with money earned through product placement? And he did.
The film documents Spurlock as he pitches himself to companies looking to sponsor the film. One of the more fascinating aspects of the process is the behind the scenes access we get to the creative process. In a pitch meeting with POM Wonderful, the company who ultimately paid $1 million for above-the-title sponsorship rights, Spurlock’s ideas for television commercials are rejected one by one. Morgan Spurlock wants to retain creative control over the tenor of his film, but the POM Wonderful folks are paying good money to be represented in a certain light. Who has a more legitimate claim to creative input?
Surprisingly, the question is less obvious than you might think. Never once does Spurlock cave to lazy stereotypes about the evils of corporate America; yes, he signs agreements with them saying he won’t disparage the companies, but he also retained final cut on the film. Both Spurlock, unrelentingly cheeky, and the sponsoring companies, mostly well meaning but cautious business people in board rooms, come off looking fairly good. This isn’t a political diatribe or social indictment. The Greatest Movie Ever Sold is not interested in pulling back the curtain on product placement.
Ultimately, there is no information in the film that should come as any great shock to anyone. Can product placement in films be ridiculous? Of course. Do advertisers psychologically manipulate consumers to buy products they don’t need? Of course! This is old news, and anyone who didn’t know that should be slightly ashamed. I didn’t need to watch POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, but I enjoyed myself. Spurlock shills hard for his sponsors and creates many wonderful ads, proving a more relevant point to the boring “ads are evil” vs. “ads are more important than art” dichotomies: sometimes, ads can be great art. Spurlock finds a niche between totally selling out and cultural elitism that manages to entertain and illuminate.
Morgan Spurlock is less concerned with scathing social satire and more with having a hell of a good time. He has the air of a giddy teenager who can’t believe he keeps getting away with one schoolyard prank after another. Spurlock’s joy is infectious. Witness the scene in which he combs the grocery store aisles looking for potential products to approach as sponsors, finding Mane ‘N Tail, the only shampoo for both humans and horses. He can barely keep a straight face at the idea of a dual human/equine hygiene product. Spurlock also clearly enjoys the perks of his partnership with brands like Hyatt Hotels (free room upgrades and comfy towels) and Jet Blue (free air travel). By far the biggest laughs of the film come from the in-movie television advertisements Spurlock creates for his brand partners. Playfully inserted into the narrative of the film, we’re unsure of when the 30-second spots will appear, so that we’re often fooled into thinking Spurlock’s narration is part of the movie until it’s too late. The joke’s on us, and it gets funnier every time.
The main vein of humor in the film is the fact that Morgan Spurlock gets away with any of this. The surprise and astonishment factor in The Greatest Movie Ever Sold smoothes over the thinness of its plot and on-the-fly meta-construction (watching Spurlock talk about pitching a television commercial, then pitching the commercial, then watching the commercial). All of this self-reflexivity is buoyed by Spurlock himself, whose upbeat enthusiasm and irrepressible curiosity about all manner of the ad game keeps the film moving at a swift clip. This is a frothy piece of pop entertainment that pokes fun at Hollywood, corporations, and consumers, but does so without any real satirical bite. The social implications of product placement, like advertising in public schools, or emerging science that companies use to literally scan the brains of consumers to chart biological responses to ads, are glossed over in favor of broad comedy. Which is more or less fine with me. I’d rather we get a tonally consistent comedy than a conflicted film that tries to be funny and important, and fails at both.
Everyone knows product placement is a double-edged sword; no one wants to think they’re susceptible to it, but everyone loves getting things for free. Will I start drinking POM Wonderful by the gallon now that I’ve seen this film? No. But after my screening, Spurlock did treat the audience to free samples of the juice. And in the interest of full disclosure, it was delicious.
Cast and Crew
- Director(s): Morgan SpurlockAbbie HurewitzMorgan Spurlock
- Producer(s): Jessica WuJeremy ChilnickMorgan Spurlock
- Screenwriter(s): Morgan Spurlock (himself)Ralph Nader (himself)
- Cast: Tom VogtDaniel Marracino
- Production Designer(s):
- Costume Designer:
- Casting Director(s):
- Music Score:
- Music Performed By:
- Country Of Origin: USA