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Super Size Me   B

Roadside Attractions / Samuel Goldwyn Films

Year Released: 2004
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Morgan Spurlock
Writer: Morgan Spurlock
Cast: Morgan Spurlock, Dr. Daryl Isaacs, Dr. Lisa Ganjhu.

Review by Rob Vaux

What is it about McDonald's that boils the blood? Their corporate hegemony is no less repugnant than any other institution, and yet something in the zeitgeist has the effect of nails on the blackboard. It could be their insipid ads, delivering bland slogans amid endless images of cheerful consumer zombies. It could be their dominance of the fast-food market, claiming some 43% at last count. It could be their shameless targeting of children with a clown mascot, Saturday morning commercials, and Happy Meals filled with coveted bits of plastic garbage.

Then again, it could just be that they serve really lousy food.

Filmmaker Morgan Spurlock hammers that point home with gut-rumbling efficiency in his new documentary Super Size Me. Ostensibly, he has bigger game to hunt -- America's unhealthy eating habits and the increasing problem of obesity-related illnesses -- but the Golden Arches makes an irresistible focal point for his crusade. Using himself as a guinea pig, Spurlock resolves to go 30 days eating nothing but Mickey D's in order to demonstrate the effect their food has on our bodies. The results owe a great deal to Michael Moore, whose muckraking iconoclasm Spurlock clearly emulates. He also has Moore's flair for presentation (if not the in-your-face theatrics), and his engaging personality lessens the egotism of appearing as his own protagonist. Combined with a topical subject matter, he makes Super Size Me a striking comic assault on the fast-food nation.

The effects of Spurlock's month-long diet of Big Macs, Quarter Pounders, and Egg McMuffins are sadly predictable. Starting at 185 pounds and a health-nut's physique, he gains over 10% of his body weight, shoots his cholesterol through the roof, and causes horrifying damage to his liver and waistline in just a few weeks. He compounds it by refusing to exercise (he even takes cabs to work rather than walking) and by overdoing it on every meal (slathering his food in condiments and "Super-Sizing" his drinks and fries whenever asked). He claims that such gluttony emulates the habits of most Americans, an oversimplification which nonetheless gives rise to one of Super Size Me's most probing questions: are we the consumers responsible for our bad habits, or do companies like McDonald's share the blame? The film never gives a definitive answer, though it does suggest that the public is at least partially complicit in its own corporate exploitation. The best moments come when Super Size Me engenders real soul-searching in its audience, elevating the debate beyond the demagoguery it could have become.

At the same time, Spurlock's eagerness often glosses over key details. We get little information on what makes fast food so unhealthy (beyond a few obvious "lard and sugar" references), and though he delights in shocking us with images of grotesquely fat people, he struggles to focus on why so many have gained so much. He's given to blanket statements, some of which ring true more than others, and his Moore envy comes to the forefront in a fruitless attempt to get McDonald's Corp to make a statement on the record. In addition, there's several tantalizing threads -- such as one involving school lunches and another meditating on the distinction between "healthy" and "thin" -- that are never really integrated with the rest of the film, marring the proceedings with scattershot meandering.

Then again, such simplicity can also be a strength, which Super Size Me finds in its sharp and entertaining presentation. Though sometimes thinly drawn, Spurlock's points are still pertinent, and he calls attention to them with a carnival barker's skill. The horrors of his gastronomic odyssey are drawn out in easy-to-understand terms from various experts he consults (including his Vegan chef girlfriend, who casually compares pork consumption with heroin addiction), and a series of colorful graphics that deliver their message with imagination and cleverness. When the humor starts to falter, Spurlock isn't afraid to add some stomach-turning gross-out moments as well. Yet unlike Moore, he rarely exploits anyone for cheap emotional payoffs, and he remains clear in his purpose even when his attention starts to wander.

And certainly, the target has it coming. While the film vacillates between McDonald's itself and larger social trends, it never allows Ronald an inch of wiggle room. If for no other reason, Super Size Me earns its spurs by calling the clown on his sins, and chiding us for letting him get away with it. Is McDonald's alone in its malfeasance? Of course not. But as a leading perpetrator of our society's me-first overindulgence, it can take its share of the heat. Super Size Me shines a smart, memorable spotlight on problems that everyone should be thinking about, and makes sure the bozo at the front of the parade stands accountable with the rest of us.

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm off to the gym. An hour on the treadmill sounds really good right about now.

Review published 05.11.2004.

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