Stuffed with turkey after a Thanksgiving feast at his parents' house in West Virginia, New York-based TV producer Morgan Spurlock, 33, had what he calls a "sadistic epiphany."
"This is a great bad idea," he recalls thinking. It was 2002, and a couple of young girls had retained lawyers to sue McDonald's as the cause of their obesity. As Spurlock writes in the press kit for Super Size Me (which opens this Sunday at the Met), "I've seen so many overweight children and watched countless families eat out night after night on pizza and burgers. Seeing it come to a head in a courtroom lit the fuse; someone needed to tell this story, and tell it in a way that would capture interest and attention."
He and his partners immediately went into pre-production, and started full production two months later, traveling 25,000 miles and shooting 250 hours of video by mid-July 2003. That's not travel by car; that's the distance that a whole lot of junk food traveled down Spurlock's increasingly resistant digestive tract. He soon finds, in consultation with his increasingly resistant trio of doctors and trainers, that his liver may be turning into "pat & eacute;" and that his libido has gone to pot. (On the night before he begins his burger odyssey, Spurlock's vegan chef girlfriend prepares a "last supper" of green-'n'-healthy stuff for him.)
The tall, hale and hearty former dancer with a goofy handlebar mustache set four rules. No options: he could only eat what was available over the counter, including water. No Super-sizing, unless offered. No excuses: he had to sample every item on the menu at least once. Plus: three squares a day, breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Let's put it plainly: This is a disgusting movie. This is a troubling movie. And: This is a hilarious movie. Spurlock takes it in the gut with humorous and appalling results. "A film of epic proportions" is the tag line.
A couple days into the vile experiment, Spurlock goes through a Manhattan drive-through and sits in his car chowing down. There's time lapse to show something of gross proportions: his body saying, "Hey, buddy, it's been 72 hours, what are you doing to me? Heyyyyyyy! Are you listening?" Which leads promptly to an epic regurgitation onto the pavement which just keeps coming. Titles cards show just how much time elapses as the first signs of processed food damage pound at Spurlock's belly.
Spurlock's got more questions than answers about nutrition and commerce in this day and age, but they're very, very good questions. There's a subsection about how brand-name products are marketed to children in grade schools and how little money is allocated for physical education - an episode that most reviewers of Super Size Me have overlooked. My eyes stung both from laughter and anger at the gangly director's provocative prank.
As with Fahrenheit 9/11, there's been some shooting of the messenger instead of listening to the message. Some writers -- and public relations representatives of McDonald's -- have claimed that Super Size Me is a silly prank and scientifically fatuous, when in fact it actually has a lot on its goofy mind. And as with Michael Moore's more serious, but similarly barbed project, Spurlock's movie has found a hungry audience, grossing over $10 million through the July 4 weekend. That's a line that very few independent movies ever cross, let alone documentaries.
Super Size Me may appear scattershot to some, but Spurlock brashly raises valuable questions about corporate responsibility, the educational system's accountability amid our current plague of morbid obesity, and the simple amorality of the word "food" having the word "processing" attached to it in the pursuit of corporate health. Meanwhile, consumers are sold poor substitutes for nutrition.
Since the documentary's Sundance debut, where it won an audience award, the McDonald's conglomerate pledged to soon end its Super-size promotions - a fact which Spurlock duly notes at the end of his film. What he doesn't mention is the footnote: To date, the end of Super-sizing applies only to the United States, not to other countries. Spurlock does demonstrate that McDonald's sizes are incrementally puffed up from what they were when the chain first opened: Medium and large are marketing labels, not finite quantities.
Like Fahrenheit 9/11, this a polemic. It can be attacked for being unfair and one-sided. But so can television commercials and all-pervasive advertising campaigns. In one agonizing segment, Spurlock tests a few school kids: some can identify President Bush, some can put a name to the classical representation of Jesus, but they all know Ronald McDonald. Now my stomach hurts.