Morgan Spurlock's films are less documentaries than filmed gimmicks--clever ideas mounted breezily, but not to be confused with analysis or insight. The results thus far have been mixed: Super Size Me was such an ingeniously gonzo premise that the film's preachiness and occasional cruelty were mostly overlooked, but the relentlessly self-infatuated and overinflated (though, admittedly, slightly entertaining) Where in the World is Osama bin Laden was panned or ignored by critics and audiences alike, and his segment in the documentary omnibus Freakonomics made Spurlock seem even more of a lightweight when grouped with real documentarians.
His new film, The Greatest Movie Ever Sold (excuse me: POM Wonderful presents The Greatest Movie Ever Sold) takes a hands-on look at product placement and advertising in movies by documenting Spurlock's attempts to finance the film using the very methods it is examining and exposing. He admits right off the bat that a low-budget documentary doesn't necessarily promise the same kind of exposure as a summer blockbuster (when asked how many people it will reach, Spurlock cheerily replies, "Dozens!"), so he looks at both ends of the equation, the chicken and the egg: how product placement puts money into a film, and how tie-ins function as advertising afterwards.
There are buzzwords galore: Brand personality, neuro-marketing, brand collateral. He does pitch meetings, talks to PR people (including one, late in the film, who's like a Bob Oedenkirk character), wheels and deals. His early efforts don't go well; most of the big corporations turn him down (Volkswagen is particularly insistent), and he ends up pitching to companies like Mane n' Tail, a shampoo for both humans and horses. But he finally lines up official sponsors like jetBlue, Hyatt, and Mini-Cooper (gassing his car up, he tells the camera, "Glad I'm not driving some piece-of-shit Volkswagen"), all the while checking in with sociologists, experts, and commentators like Noam Chomsky and Ralph Nader--who displays a sense of humor we haven't seen in years--and filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino, J.J. Abrams, Peter Berg, and Brett Ratner (Berg is the most admirably candid; Ratner, no surprise, makes you want to punch him).
Spurlock's detractors--and they are legion--will find plenty to complain about here: the filmmaker again puts himself front and center throughout the film (whatever their secondary subject might be, his films' primary subject is always himself), and he can tend to get irritatingly cutesy with his editing and graphics. But some of his choices work; even this skeptical viewer had to admit that the illustration of "clutter on the screen" is awfully funny. And his points, though often obvious, are well-conveyed; he takes a trip to Sao Paulo, which recently passed a bill to eliminate all outdoor advertising (which they classify as "visual pollution"), and the sight of a major city bereft of messaging drives home how much of it surrounds us--and how little we even notice it anymore.
By its very design, The Greatest Movie Ever Sold doesn't have much of an ending; if the final analysis is whether this kind of thing actually works, we can't know how well it worked in this particular case until the film is released. But the film is well-paced and frequently funny, and some of the information within (like the focused marketing in school classroom broadcasts) is startling. It's not a great documentary, no. But it entertains and it plays, and that appears to be Spurlock's primary concern.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their two cats in New York and holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.