Film review: POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold

Duncan Wu doesn’t quite buy Morgan Spurlock’s less-than-burning questions about commercial sponsorship

October 11, 2011

Credit: Sony Pictures

POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold

Directed by Morgan Spurlock

Starring Morgan Spurlock, Ralph Nader

and Paul Brennan

Released in the UK on 14 October

For someone who calls himself a film director, Morgan Spurlock spends a lot of time in front of the camera. He’s really a showman; you can tell by his Zapata moustache. But he’s also a one-trick pony. It is an entertaining trick nonetheless, thanks partly to the faux naïf charm with which it is performed: he likes to “go native”.

With his first film, Super Size Me (2004), he did the unspeakable and ate only at McDonald’s for a month, “supersizing” whenever it was suggested to him. With his latest film, POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, he has funded a documentary about advertising and product placement entirely through income he raised by advertising and product placement. The film therefore contains three commercial breaks for various sponsors, all of them featuring Spurlock, and is full of shots that contain prominently positioned brand names.

During the course of POM Wonderful, as my local multiplex insists on calling it (thus delivering value for money to Spurlock’s sponsors), we see him talking to public relations executives, businessmen, academics, communications experts and assorted celebrities such as Donald Trump, Ralph Nader, Quentin Tarantino and Noam Chomsky. So brief are these soundbites, and so detached are they from their context, that they are virtually meaningless. Even the more interesting of the talking heads do little more than state the obvious. They serve the purpose of granting Spurlock the credibility he would otherwise lack.

One of the more worthwhile, Nader, observes Spurlock’s dilemma: “Out of this film may come a transformed, corporatised Morgan Spurlock. That’s your challenge.” At which point Spurlock tries to sell Nader a pair of shoes made by one of his sponsors.

Chomsky, too, recognises the challenge facing the film-maker, and warns him that, should he resist the temptations dangled in front of him, “you’ll end up in Montana growing your own food!” Growing one’s own food is not regarded as a virtue in the US, and the compulsion to sell one’s soul as a means of avoiding such a fate extends even to state schools, which are obliged to supplement their dwindling funds by selling advertising space on outside walls.

“At what point do I let myself do everyone else’s bidding?” Spurlock asks at one stage, anxious as to where his sponsors’ demands will end. His desperation to sell himself makes the problem a pressing one. Even so, the question of how implicated he becomes in the act of selling is less important than it appears, because the sheepish grin on his face indicates that the enterprise is ironic. Spurlock sets out to discover whether the businesses he approaches are publicity-hungry enough to fund a film documenting the absurdity of product placement in our lives. Of course they are. But I wonder whether it was something he needed to prove.

Spurlock’s theme isn’t original, but then none of his films has had anything original to say. I’m not sure it really matters, because he’s a winsome presence, and the sight of him baiting his prey is the principal attraction of his films. POM Wonderful (pomegranate juice, in case you’re in doubt) is apparently 40 per cent as effective as Viagra. It is amusing to watch Spurlock pitch a commercial to the POM chief executive – one in which, he says, he will sport a huge erection that demonstrates the beneficial effects of her product.

“Well,” says the CEO, “you could make the point with more subtlety.” Indeed. Spurlock is second cousin to Louis Theroux, with the same ability to insinuate himself into people’s good graces before killing them with kindness. Except that killing isn’t what he goes in for.

As the consumer’s champion, Spurlock lacks the fangs of, say, Michael Moore. Where Moore sets out to nail the bastards, Spurlock just wants to roll around on the carpet. His portrayal of the hard-nosed businessmen at Sheetz, the petrol-station chain, for instance, has the effect of humanising them. He cannot help it because his principal object is to entertain – something he does with brio.

POM Wonderful will change nothing. It will tell you nothing you don’t already know, nor will it make you more aware of the extent to which advertising has permeated the culture. It won’t even make you less susceptible to its effects. Let’s face it, some members of its audience may even, having noted the “beneficial effects”, rush from the cinema to bulk-buy supplies of a certain pomegranate drink – in which case POM Wonderful will have served as nothing more than a 90-minute commercial break.

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