My first reaction to Morgan Spurlock’s new film (currently playing at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas) was confusion: what was with its unwieldy title, and — perhaps more to the point — what was a ‘Pom Wonderful’? After seeing the film, of course, it all became clear: Spurlock had sold the naming rights for his film to a beverage company for a cool million dollars. With the acquisition of those naming rights, the fix was in and Pom Wonderful Presents The Greatest Movie Ever Sold was born.
Spurlock’s freshman feature, 2004’s Super Size Me, broke out of the art-house circuit and ultimately grossed over $11,500,000 — an impressive take for a low-budget, non-Michael Moore helmed documentary. Its message — quarter pounders and milk shakes are bad for you — was as chicken soup for the soul for folks more favorably inclined towards slow, organic food than to the fast, chemically enhanced variety served at the Golden Arches.
The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, however, is not the black-and-white saga of one man’s struggle against evil mega-corporations shoveling high-fat, high-calorie goodies down the unsuspecting gullets of foolish Americans. Instead, it joyfully embraces one of the trademarks of the fast-food industry: the synergistic relationship between advertising, pop culture, and consumer capitalism. Consequently, audiences are going to leave this film with very mixed feelings.
‘Product placement’ — the introduction of readily identifiable consumer products into the narrative flow of film and television stories — began during the early days of cinema, but didn’t become ubiquitous until the 1980s. Companies paid producers to give their product pride of place on screen; sometimes the product would simply sit in the background or foreground looking utilitarian, on other occasions it would become part of the story (remember E.T. and those Reese’s Pieces?).
Spurlock decided to explore the phenomenon by funding The Greatest Movie Ever Sold entirely with money generated from product placement contracts. The film follows him from corporate boardroom to corporate boardroom as he pitches his idea to companies as diverse as Hyatt, Jet Blue, Mane ‘n Tail Shampoo (which, you’ll be relieved to learn, is safe for both horses and humans) and Sheetz, an awkwardly monikered East Coast restaurant chain.
There’s a distinct whiff of post-modernity in the air, as the film straddles the line(s) between satire, straight documentary, and corporatist propaganda. Spurlock is upfront about what he’s doing: he tells the audience precisely what to expect, is honest with his sponsors, and follows through with his commitments (and his logo-covered jacket might be the most iconic piece of male garb since Elvis’ gold Nudie suit.)
There are plenty of hilarious moments scattered throughout The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, but it’s far from being a comfy crowd-pleaser. Folks who patted themselves on the back for spurning Super Size Me’s all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, and onions on a sesame seed bun will be squirming about the compromises Spurlock — and by extension, all of us — makes in order to put food on the table. However, you will have a new appreciation for the health-giving properties of pomegranate juice — and the film’s official theme song, OK Go’s “The Greatest Song I Ever Heard”, is pretty catchy, too.
Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly.