Documentary director Morgan Spurlock reveals his hand repeatedly in Greatest Movie, and every time it's entertaining. He also raises the specter of scary realities that we're all totally aware of, but choose to ignore. That's a tough type of movie to make; one that seems obvious, and is all about artifice, while implicating viewers in passive co-option of the very concepts it doesn't exactly support or decry. Welcome to Spurlock's world of anti-populist populism.
Spurlock is much more a sly lefty than Michael Moore, while in the case of this movie it almost doesn't matter, since the problematic all-pervasiveness of advertising certainly straddles all ideologies. After reminding us that fast food is indeed bad, (Super Size Me) Spurlock now takes a high concept look at product placement in movies. He intends to fund his movie entirely through advertising dollars, hence the full title, POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold. In meta-blurry fashion, the entire movie is more-or-less about Spurlock attempting to get the movie made. There are some very clever advertisements that the crew has staged, but everything else is pretty much live documentary footage, meaning that you're watching the movie and watching it get made simultaneously. "Where's the beef?" indeed.
Yet the movie has so much good stuff, about the reality of advertising and simply doing business in our world today, sharply delivered through Spurlock's affability, that its odd nature as a product about products becomes hypnotic. Traversing from basic questions ("does advertising work?") to the maddening logistics of copyright clearance, negotiations for usage and such-like, to the obvious notion that we are surrounded by, and even becoming, advertising ourselves. Among the many scarily useful bits of information Spurlock gleans is the idea that people ought to consider their "brand identity - what they bring to the table," at least in the business world. And if you want to be considered credible, "visibility equals credibility." Not skill or tenure or results; visibility.
This all goes far beyond the simple notion of product placement in movies, though, which I guess is this movie's MacGuffin. That may be the key to the movie's most fascinating aspect as it relates to its own success. Throughout, Spurlock is open about dollar amounts in negotiations. (Though heaven forbid you say anything more than "a hundred" when referring to 100 thousand.) Regarding these negotiations, obviously, is the idea that the sponsors want as many eyes as possible watching the movie. It's something that's never mentioned in terms of a contractual guarantee, (except one nod to DVD sales) which is good. Yet a little research reveals that Spurlock raised about 1.8 million to finance the film, which grossed less than 700 thousand, which doesn't sound like a very good ROI.
So why did viewers stay away? Did it seem like product placement in the movies was too easy a target? Were they confused as to exactly what type of movie they'd see? Or was Greatest Movie Ever Sold simply perceived as flogging a dead horse? Whatever the reason, it's too bad, because if audiences had stuck around, they would have found first a consistently funny and entertaining film raising old ideas in a new, informative way. It's edited as tight as a drum, too - it's state-of-the-art popular documentary work. Yes, Spurlock is himself a brand, and the performance of this documentary may have hurt his brand. Too bad, since he's good at digging around, getting to the heart of things, while doing it in a way that crosses ideological boundaries. (If you're an intellectual, it helps if you're big and strong, with facial hair.) His subjects may seem light, but they're all pervasive, making them slippery, but pretty important.
Spurlock salts the movie with contractually obligated, but almost satirical advertisements for his sponsors. It doesn't get more blurry than with Hyatt, a major sponsor, which is treated to an advertisement full of faux sensuality and Spurlock with chocolate in his mustache: it's a real, fake, jokey ad made by this movie, for this movie. It makes my brain suck into itself, which is what advertising is supposed to do anyway, only we pretend we're immune to it now. Congratulations, Morgan Spurlock! Sorry it didn't work out so well. Recommended. (POM Wonderful would like you to buy the DVD.)