Monday, November 21, 2011

Super Size Me: The Painful Documentary That Will Make You Swear Off McDonald's Food!

The Good: Incredibly well-researched, Well-presented, Entertaining, Adequate DVD bonuses
The Bad: Immediately biased, Disappointing resolution
The Basics: Morgan Spurlock's debut documentary explores the very real risks of McDonald's food by placing the director on a diet of it for thirty days!

For years now, Super Size Me has been on my list of films I've wanted to see. Ever since I sat down in the theater to watch Fahrenheit 9/11 (reviewed here!), I've been an eager consumer of documentary films. Made before Morgan Spurlock became somewhat well-known for spending thirty days doing something (or putting two people together to do something for thirty days while he observes the results) and commenting on it, Spurlock became intrigued with the fast food industry, specifically a lawsuit against McDonald's. Obsessed with a judge's concept that those suing McDonald's needed to illustrate proof of harm from the McDiet (a diet consisting solely of McDonald's food).

Armed with a pretty strong supposition that the McDiet is unhealthy, Morgan Spurlock engages in a thirty day McDiet. Prior to his dietary experiment, Spurlock receives three physicals from two specialists and a general practitioner. After being deemed incredibly healthy, Spurlock alters his diet and exercise pattern to that of an average American and then he simply begins to eat everything off the McDonald's menu over the course of the month. While Spurlock's health deteriorates, he explores the corporate culture of McDonald's and the obesity problem in the United States.

Super Size Me is a remarkably direct documentary that starts with a simple premise Spurlock seems confident in exploring; that there is a direct link between McDonald's fast food and the obesity problem in the United States. Ironically, while Spurlock seems biased from the film's opening frames, he is able to present an incredibly unbiased documentary through the systematic and intensely logical methodology of his experiment. Indeed, while none of his three medics recommends Spurlock's McDiet experiment, none adequately predict the severity of the health risks the change in diet will cause.

And therein lies the subtle brilliance of Super Size Me; Spurlock captures the ambivalence of the doctors at the beginning to the experiment that highlights their growing concern as Spurlock's body is significantly altered by the change in diet. As Spurlock's liver becomes plagued with fat, one of the doctors who had been most ambivalent toward the potential negative effects of the McDiet becomes the most concerned over the risk to Spurlock's life.

Yes, eating only McDonald's food for thirty days begins to jeopardize Spurlock's very life!

Who would have guessed?

As Spurlock engages in the simple day by day consumption of McDonald's food, Super Size Me wisely intercuts with an exploration of the corporate fast food culture. He takes the viewer on a factual exploration of the history of the sizes of McDonald's portions, he explores the way McDonald's entices children through advertising and creating product recognition, and he charts the rise of obesity in the United States and Europe as it parallels the rise of the fast food industry. And, strangely, Super Size Me manages to be more objective and entertaining than Fast Food Nation. Super Size Me applies a level of methodology and professionalism that allows the argument to develop effectively on its own as opposed to employing the brutal (and entertaining) satire that Fast Food Nation utilizes.

Super Size Me is unsettling in its starkness. Despite the lighthearted soundtrack, this is a remarkably simple film that lets the experiment speak for itself. Once Spurlock's methodology is defined, he simply executes the plan and the viewer witnesses his weight gain, mood swings and his later cravings for the food he admits he despises. The addictive nature of the food is not explicitly discussed much in the film and that works to the credit of the director and the subject; seeing Spurlock eagerly consuming the same type food he vomited up minutes prior is much more telling than alleging an addiction!

Furthermore, the documentary includes some intriguing bonus footage on DVD. In the deleted scenes, there is footage of Overeater's Anonymous that did not truly fit in the film and was wisely left out. Still, it is interesting to see. As well, there is a deleted section on the toys and marketing props for McDonald's that one wonders why it was cut and is a pleasure to see on the disc (it would have powerfully reinforced the section on product recognition in youth to see two senior citizens with their $30,000 collection of McDonald's toys and memorabilia). Also quite effective is the deleted scene illustrating the trash generated by Spurlock's experiment that was strangely left out of the film as well!

But most telling is a special featurette on the food decomposition of McDonald's food, an experiment that is truly horrifying. Spurlock leaves several sandwiches and fries from McDonald's in glass jars for ten weeks (as well as a burger and fries from a fresh food restaurant as a control) and allows them to decompose. The result is, mildly put, disgusting . . . and fascinating.

And for as biased as Super Size Me might initially appear, it is a remarkably methodical experiment caught on film and the resulting documentary is quite effective at proving a causal relationship between McDonald's food and obesity. The disappointing aspect, then, is to learn near the film's conclusion, that the lawsuit that inspired the documentary was dismissed on the grounds that the people suing McDonald's could not prove the causal relationship that Spurlock's film so effectively demonstrates.

And, honestly, Super Size Me remains relevant and worth seeing outside the simple idea. I arrived at the film pretty much despising McDonald's food, and sense of corporate irresponsibility despite the Ronald McDonald charities, but seeing the effect and extremity of the experiment was so much more compelling than simply hearing/reading about it. It was eye opening just how far Spurlock took the experiment and the effect of it.

Lately, I have found myself underwhelmed by documentaries that state a simple premise and then either repeat it or drag it out without making a genuine argument, without desiring to bring about a change. Super Size Me is not one of those documentaries; it makes a case, it calls for action. And it does it quite effectively and in a way that is both informative and entertaining. In fact, it leaves the viewer wanting nothing, save to have nothing to do with McDonald's.

Well, with that written, I'm off to breakfast at my favorite, healthy and responsible fast food joint: Panera Bread. In addition to everything I like about it, after watching Super Size Me, I find myself liking it even more on the simple virtue that it is not McDonald's!

For other documentaries, please check out my reviews of:
Bowling For Columbine
Lost In La Mancha
Roger & Me


For other movie reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2011, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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