Super Size Me (United States, 2004)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Amidst all the controversy this film has generated, it's safe to say one thing: very few viewers are likely to visit a fast-food restaurant immediately after seeing this movie.

Is Morgan Spurlock's Super Size Me an attack on McDonald's? Not directly, although it's certainly not a Valentine. Rather, it's a look at the deleterious effects that the modern "fast food culture" is having upon our society. The movie's "hook" is that Spurlock performs an experiment upon himself to see how he would fare if he ate nothing but McDonald's food for 30 days. However, one could see that as tangential to the film's central themes, which advocate personal responsibility, decry corporate deniability, and emphasize that people aren't getting the message that fast food can be bad for those who eat it with regularity.

Spurlock is not Michael Moore, although he possesses a similar biting wit. However, Spurlock replaces Moore's smugness with a self-deprecating approach. (Can anyone imagine Moore filming himself vomiting out a car window?) While Spurlock has an agenda, it is not as obviously "leftist" as Moore's. In fact, in spreading the blame around, Super Size Me comes across as apolitical. Sure, it skews corporations, but it also takes aim at those who pursue frivolous lawsuits against McDonald's, outing their lawyers' motives at being purely financial. And, because Super Size Me is more personal than Moore's movies, there's a sense of greater honesty and openness. After all, once Spurlock's vegan girlfriend admits that the fast food diet has impacted his ability to "get it up" in bed, how much more humiliating can the details get?

The experiment is the most interesting, but not necessarily the most informative, aspect of Super Size Me. Spurlock goes on a one-month McDonald's spree in which he eats three gluttonous meals per day. He plays by a few rules: everything he eats has to be on the McDonald's menu, he must sample every food choice at least once, and he only super sizes when asked by a cashier. Over the course of his study, he gains 25 pounds; experiences an extreme increase in cholesterol; suffers sexual dysfunction, headaches, and nausea; and shows signs of addiction. It's not a pretty picture, and, while the extremity of Spurlock's reactions are in part a result of his excessive indulgence (5000 calories per day), it illustrates a point about the unhealthiness of fast food eating.

Alongside telling his personal tale, Spurlock interviews a variety of talking heads (although his attempts to add a McDonald's executive to his list of interviewees is foiled by the company) and spends some time investigating why fast food entrees are replacing healthier choices in elementary and high schools. (One girl claims that her "vegetable" for the day is French fries.) He also looks into the link between fast food advertising aimed at children and the increase in obesity in the underage population. The evidence is all anecdotal, but it's pretty convincing, especially since it doesn't take a genius to make the connection between the increased availability of convenient fast food and the expanding national waist size. Little of what Spurlock presents in Super Size Me is new or revolutionary, but he packages it in an entertaining and easily digestible manner. It's one thing to know that fast food is bad for you. It's another to see that "badness" demonstrated.

Super Size Me has plenty of critics, many of whom are paid spokesmen for McDonald's. Other filmmakers are developing a rebuttal movies to Super Size Me in which they illustrate how a variant of the McDonald's diet allows weight and cholesterol reduction. One has the sense that none of these productions will reach the screen, unless McDonald's decides to get into the film distribution business.

In the end, it's pretty clear that Spurlock's goal is not to convince everyone in his viewing audience to stay away from McDonald's. (The experiment hasn't turned him into a vegetarian, although he avoids admitting whether he plans to eat any fast food in the near future.) Instead, he wants us to have a concrete understanding of what we're eating. The issue may be serious, but the tone is lighthearted, and that, more than anything else, makes Super Size Me a palatable cinematic entrée. Especially when enjoyed with a big carton of buttered popcorn and a double-sized cup of Coke.

Super Size Me (United States, 2004)

Director: Morgan Spurlock
Cast: Morgan Spurlock
Screenplay: Morgan Spurlock
U.S. Distributor: The Samuel Goldwyn Company
Run Time: 1:38
U.S. Release Date: 2004-05-07
MPAA Rating: "NR" (Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1