Tuesday, May 31, 2011

review: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold

POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold (2011, Morgan Spurlock)

Right now I am drinking a nice, hot, delicious Second Cup green tea. I am wearing some swanky Old Navy jeans. My shirt is the Arsenal home jersy for the ’06-’07 season, made by none other than the biggest, most recognizable sportswear manufacturer on the planet today: Nike. These brands, as well as countless others, are seemingly unavoidable in our everyday lives, especially for those of us living in medium to large sized cities, where the companies who produce said products know full well that the market is ripe for the picking and therefore push their marketing techniques to the fullest degree. One of the most prominent marketing strategies in recent times has been product placement, by which companies have their brands associated with other products, most often movies and television shows which are viewed by millions upon millions of people. Most of the time the companies that try to push their products in the show or motion picture will try to make the appearance of their brand feel as natural as possible. As part of the story, if you will. Documentarian Morgan Spurlock, as well as a lot of other people, think this is bunk, that companies have far too close a relationship with people and artists these days, to the point that said companies even flex their marketing muscles in the school system. 

In POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, Spurlock decides that to make a point, he is going to play the same game as the large corporations: the entirety of the film shall be sponsored by and feature advertising for whichever companies are willing to lend Spurlock some money to finance the actual film. Given the premise and how the filmmaker goes about his task, the film has a bit of a ‘meta’ feel to it. The film demonstrates the process of acquiring the rights to show product placement, meaning that Spurlock is in fact financing the film as he is filming it. The scenes in the film offer a diverse amount of interviews, some of which happen to be more insightful than others. Of course there are meetings with representatives from POM Wonderful, JetBlue, Moviestickets.com, Sheetz and Old Navy, just to name a few big brand names. Spurlock gets to chat with some other figures in the world of film and film marketing, like J.J. Abrams, Quentin Tarantino and Peter Berg. Some of the more pertinent scenes however have Spurlock discussing with his own lawyer about how to approach certain aspects of the film and whether or not he will even have final approval of the film since when product placement is a major issue, oftentimes the companies whose products appear the film earn the right to dictate certain script aspects.

This being the second film from Spurlock I watch (the first was Super Size Me), I feel as though it is safe to arrive at certain conclusion about his filmmaking process. The aspects which made Super Size Me so entertaining have returned for Greatest Movie Ever Sold, but so have the negatives. Say what you will about the messages of Spurlock’s films, the man is not afraid to make himself look silly in order to make a point. Choosing to be entirely dependent on product placement to finance to film despite that his reputation in the eyes of big corporations is not the strongest, particularly after Super Size Me, was also a gutsy move. He is rejected a number of times before finding his very first partner and there are moments when Spurlock himself is a little stunned and disappointed at how conservative many of the corporations want to play the game, or other times how open they are to belittling rival brand names.
There is quite a bit of fun to be had during all these adventures and misadventures. If there is one thing that Spurlock does tremendously well, it is never to make the material under study too dry. In fact, it is never dry at all. The documentarian has a flare for sharing funny and frequently intelligent comments about his current situation is in relation to the object of the film’s thesis. There is a certain quality to this type of storytelling when the topic is so serious which should not go unappreciated for I believe only a select few directors can adequately perform such a juggling act. Not all of the jokes land, but there are some hysterical moments, some of which exist to satisfy the audience (the ridiculous advertisement for JetBlue comes to mind) while others not only serve that purpose but aim for a level of shock value, as when Spurlock reveals to the POM Wonderful some storyboards describing a very weird and sexed up potential ad for their drink. 

Not is all satisfactory with Greatest Movie though. In reality, despite what praise may be showered onto the film, there are host of aspects which plunge the picture into a sea of mediocrity. The most important aspect is the theme’s obviousness. Anybody going to see this film surely has an idea of how corporate sponsorship operates. After all, there must be some sort of interest in the topic if one is paying to watch a film tackling the subject. Unfortunately, all Spurlock really does have to offer is the process by which films, television shows and schools are sucked into the world of product placement in the hopes of making a buck. Absolutely interesting topic in of itself, but almost no ideas are developed beyond that. Why do some companies refuse to partnerships with certain potential clients? What examples exist that demonstrates friction between creative artists and brand names during the production of a film? Some juicier details about why some companies wanted to have nothing to do with Morgan Spurlock would have been nice...Overall, the film feels perfectly content with playing things for laughs. Walking out of the theatre room with the person I saw the movie with, we discussed about why Greatest Movie failed to grab us in the way we had hoped it would. I argued that it faltered precisely where Super Size Me did: offering nothing that the viewer intrigued by said topic did not know already. My companion rebutted by explaining that while the director’s earlier film did not argue anything groundbreaking, at the very least it provided shocking numbers to the audacious experiment Spurlock engaged himself in. His health was seriously at risk and the audience was told how in great detail. With Greatest Movie, there is none of that. Advertising works, so everybody wants play the game.End of story. Ideas of creative control as well as the notion of proper education (read: devoid of preposterous branding) for children are tossed around a little bit, but never in depth and never for very long.
Perhaps expectations were too high for Spurlock’s latest endeavour. Super Size Me was already an indicator of the type of film he enjoys making, namely, ones where he is as much the center of attention as the subjects he explores. This can get boring, possibly even grating for some after a while because by the end, Greatest Story feels a lot more like a uneven comedy than a legitimate documentary, although it is being sold as the latter. Huh, talk about false advertising...


Multiplex Slut said...

Hmmm... I'll still probably see this (if I can) though I'm indeed wary of the whole Spurlock ego-orgy thang. I revisited Super-Size Me a few days ago (I'm on a diet) and was still quite entertained. Yes, it's superficial - but it's also stylish and funny.

Looking old though, isnt he?

edgarchaput said...

@Multiplex Slut: Stylish and funny perhaps, but his films seem to be more about his personal journeys than about the subject matter itself. I can atke personal journey documentaries, but I can he forsakes some really juicy information.