Super Size Me
directed by Morgan Spurlock
(Samuel Goldwyn, 2004)

Morgan Spurlock was lying on his couch after eating Thanksgiving dinner when he saw a TV report about the families of two teens who were suing McDonald's, alleging its food had made them obese. McDonald's' reply was that since the girls -- a 4-foot, 10-inch, 170-pound 14-year-old and a 5-foot, 6-inch 270-pound 19-year-old -- did not eat exclusively at the fast food chain, there was no way they could be held responsible.

That gave Spurlock what he now calls "a really good bad idea."

Suppose someone ate nothing but McDonald's meals for a whole month. Other people might have told their friends; Spurlock, a '93 New York University film school grad and host of Fusion TV, decided to show them. Super Size Me was born.

As documentaries go, Super Size Me is about as objective as Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 or Michael Wilson's Michael Moore Hates America. A scientific experiment, it's not. The sample -- one person -- is way too small, and there's no control group whatsoever. But as a film, it's brilliantly designed and almost as well executed.

Spurlock has a few simple rules: He can super-size meals only when asked; he can eat only food sold over the counter at McDonald's; he must eat everything on Mickey D's menu at least once; and he must eat three square meals a day -- breakfast, lunch and dinner.

That's what he says he's going to do, and that's what he does, but not without a bit of help. In fact, Spurlock gets lots of help, all from people who think he's a bit crazy: three doctors, an exercise physiologist and his girlfriend, who is, of all things, a vegan chef.

The doctors examine him carefully -- on screen -- before, during and after his month-long binge and report their findings on-camera. But Spurlock also thinks outside the McNuggets box. He takes his camera to a school cafeteria, where he interviews cafeteria workers about the shift from home-cooked (or school-cooked) meals to preprocessed foods full of -- you guessed it -- fat.

He interviews former Surgeon General David Satcher, who first drew attention to the nation's obesity epidemic, and Secretary of Health & Human Services Tommy Thompson, who speaks of the direct medical costs of obesity-related diseases that have doubled in the last five years -- to $92 billion in 2002.

For those who prefer action and graphic scenes in their films, we also get to see Spurlock blow chunks in the parking lot -- and watch a medical procedure that's all but unwatchable.

And for a touch of ironic humor, we get to watch Spurlock play "In Search of ..." with his camera. In one segment he goes looking for the nutritional chart McDonald's restaurants are supposed to post on the wall. About half had the chart where it belonged, about a quarter had none at all and at one McDonald's he visited -- and yes, he frequently filmed in the restaurants themselves -- the chart turned up in the basement. And the last time you ate in Mickey D's basement was...?

Spurlock even tries a bit of a Roger & Me-ish turn in which he attempts to get someone from McDonald's to speak to him about his film. His early phone calls seem promising, but it isn't long before it becomes obvious that the phone may be on, but there's no one at home, at least not when Spurlock calls.

Still, probably the most telling moment in Super Size Me comes when Spurlock checks in with one of his many doctors. He's gained quite a bit of weight (17 pounds in 12 days, 25 over the course of the experiment) and his cholesterol is up. He's suffering from some depression and fatigue, and his sex life is now mostly a fond memory.

But what catches his doctor off guard is that his liver has gone into serious malfunction -- so much so that the doctor compares it to what Nicolas Cage's character suffers in Leaving Las Vegas, and he all but pleads with Spurlock to stop the experiment immediately.

If Super Size Me comes up short, it's in its delivery. Spurlock doesn't seem to have much of a sense of humor about what he's doing, which sometimes leads him to be preachy, or even simply in your face. Once in a while, relieving the pressure could be a good thing.

To his credit, however, Spurlock has taken a serious issue and personalized it to the point where it's hard to ignore. This may not be the last word on the subject -- we've only just begun to face the fat -- but it's bound to be one of the biggest.

- Rambles
written by Miles O'Dometer
published 18 December 2004

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