If Johnny Knoxville went back to college and got his master’s degree in public health—assuming Johnny can read and write—his dissertation might have been Super Size Me. It’s a comedic documentary about a stunt: A guy named Morgan Spurlock decided to gorge himself at the trough of the American fast-food industry for a month, ostensibly to highlight the ghastly results of eating the food that dominates our collective consciousness.
Spurlock sets three conditions for his food foray: He will eat nothing but three meals a day at McDonald’s for 30 days, ordering everything on the menu at least once; he will limit his walking to about a mile every day, to better mimic the living conditions of suburbanites and commuters who don’t walk around as much as New Yorkers; and whenever one of those minimum-wage slaves at the counter asks if he wishes to super-size his meal, he will agree. He visits doctors who pronounce him in excellent health before all the disgusting fun starts.
Super Size Me killed at Sundance, where Spurlock won the directing prize for a light, engaging and altogether unsettling film—both for the results of this social experiment, and the blithe recklessness with which Spurlock pursues his scheme. As he grows increasingly bloated, our attention isn’t focused on the health issues he allegedly made the film to highlight. It’s focused on Spurlock himself, a guy who’s part Letterman, part Knoxville and part desperate 32-year-old with a liberal arts education trying to do something that will get him enough attention to start a career.
The combination could produce unbearable smugness, but Spurlock is actually quite entertaining and self-deprecating. There are countless funny asides, particularly when his girlfriend—a vegan chef, of all things—gets involved and complains about their sex life during the experiment (“I have to get on top!”).
The doctors are horrified to discover that an all-fast-food diet brings on health conditions similar to what’s caused by constant binge drinking. Spurlock gains 30 pounds in 30 days, and his cholesterol skyrockets 65 points. His liver goes haywire with symptoms of toxic shock, and he has chest pains. Even on the big screen, it’s possible to see the pasty, glazed-doughnut look of Spurlock’s skin after absorbing all those nitrates, salts and fats.
After the first viewing of Super Size Me, it’s almost difficult to remember how such a simple stunt commands the audience’s attention so completely. The picture is informative but not overtly scholarly, sprinkling its nutritional and numerical information among the shots of Spurlock swallowing another McMeal with a look of glazed disgust on his face.
Michael Moore, Nick Broomfield and others have turned the documentary into a blatant form of artistic advocacy in recent years, and Spurlock is following in their footsteps—a bit clumsily, however. He’s making a film about the fast-food industry, but he only skims the surface of a complex issue. As just one example, he barely mentions any of the factors that lead people to choose fast food, such as price, devious marketing or convenience.
Though he tries to justify his experiment by noting how it’s not much different from the way many people live, it would be hard to blame anybody but the consumer for such a lifestyle. If somebody ate huge meals at Boston Market or Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse three times a day for 30 days, they’d also blow up like a Macy’s parade balloon. Without any serious scholarly heft to his central trick, it’s not much more than a trick.
But it’s hard to hate on Spurlock when he’s vomiting a double cheeseburger, because that’s great moviemaking. This is still performance art, and it’s wildly successful for the sheer train-wreck beauty of it all—even if we didn’t really learn that much.
SUPER SIZE ME, ***, Documentary , Directed by Morgan Spurlock, Not Rated