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Super Size Me (2004)

by on 2010/02/27

In watching this documentary, I recalled a moment in the movie Midnight Run, when Charles Grodin and Robert DeNiro verbally spar about doing things they know are not good for them.  The question arises:  Why would someone live in denial?  Aside from some passing mentions of personal responsibility, Super Size Me does not seek to explain denial, but it fears that we already live there.

This film chronicles the experiences of its director, Morgan Spurlock, as he consumes nothing but McDonald’s fast food, three times a day, for thirty days.  As the month progresses, we witness the physical and emotional effects.  We are told that American courts once sought proof that “[1] McDonald’s intends for people to eat its food for every meal of the day and [2] that doing so would be unreasonably dangerous.”  While the film occasionally scratches the surface of the former, especially as regards marketing to children, Spurlock intends to prove the latter in particular.

We share in Spurlock’s experiences by means of handheld camcorder footage, but the experience is not (solely) a stomach-churning shaky-cam affair.  Intercut with the main line are various offshoots.  These tangents share relevant news stories, describe public policy, or explain more complex ideas, using a combination of live action, animation, music videos, and vox pops.

In fact, I felt some of the stylistics went too far.  Exaggeration for the purposes of entertainment or clarification can be valid.  On occasion, however, I felt the approach here threatened to undermine the very points being made.  If the facts speak for themselves, do we really need a succession of garish, leering clown images to demonize McDonald’s?  I had to work a bit not to let such overt quirks obscure the good in Spurlock’s work.

Conversely, some of the aspects which most turned me off also worked in his favour.  This film combines compulsion and repulsion in interesting ways.  The novel hook of the premise leads to curiosity about the logistical process.  Spurlock lays health and safety groundwork with a variety of doctors, dieticians, physical therapists, and other advisors.  An initial fascination gives way to concern quite early on.  As the story progresses, that concern deepens, punctuated by moments of genuine revulsion.  The squeamish viewer should know that surgery and sickness alike are presented in explicit, lingering sequences.

Questions of queasiness aside, I had other concerns.  I never truly understood why someone would risk their own health on such an experiment.  I wondered about the appeals to authority, particularly when every single specialist failed even to guess at possible outcomes.  I also puzzled over those age-old doubts, long abandoned in a reality show era:  What is truth when participants know they are being recorded, and does the watcher affect the watching?

Spurlock presents no solutions but raises valid issues of health, sociology, business, and politics.  It got me thinking.  A part of me despairs this film will not change many minds.  I suspect it will instead reflect the audience’s existing dispositions.  All in all, though, I enjoyed the time spent and found it an entertaining way to get a discussion started.

* * * * *

Rated PG for language, disturbing scenes, and adult situations

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