Big Mac Attack

`Super Size Me' offers a few belly laughs at McDonalds's expense, but is best simply as a chilling look in the funhouse mirror.

May 21, 2004|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Morgan Spurlock, the director of Super Size Me, is fitter and more rational than Michael Moore, his major influence. Spurlock launched a one-man near-suicide mission targeting fast food - and managed to make a first-person muckraker without turning into Moore physically or mentally. This movie is about Spurlock eating nothing but McDonald's food for a month. It's not about him eating up the screen.

The picture is like a kid's all-you-can-eat dream come true, but come true as an adult nightmare involving deteriorating blood pressure and organ function. It may be little more than the record of a juvenile stunt, yet that limitation is also the modest strength of Super Size Me. In his catch-as-catch-can fashion, the West Virginia-bred, New York-based Spurlock creates his own morbid comic landscape. In it, a McAddict can gain energy and satisfaction only from his daily grease and cholesterol fix, and all of America from Manhattan to Los Angeles (especially Texas) is a hazy sprawl of grime and neon glimpsed through fat-fogged eyes.

Spurlock himself becomes a slovenly cartoon of his pre-McDonald's self: gaining a couple of dozen pounds, boosting his cholesterol 40 percent and polluting his liver. And Spurlock suggests that the surreal world of his stunt is threatening to become the real world for too many Americans.

Super Size Me is the latest independent film to make a splash at the Sundance Film Festival and emit a positive buzz that rouses a backlash before it opens to the public. The nay-sayers have questioned Spurlock's methodology as if he were a nutrition scientist with a research grant instead of a filmmaker just trying to follow through on a funny idea.

They argue that people shouldn't limit themselves to any cuisine so rigorously. And they contend that Spurlock could have counted calories even when following his few rules - to eat three meals a day off the McDonald's menu, to "super-size" only if a counter-person offered the option, and to eat every item at least once.

He also mimicked most Americans' workout habits: He stopped exercising.

Eric Schlosser, author of that frightening and scintillating nonfiction best-seller Fast Food Nation, has defended Spurlock, telling Entertainment Weekly, "Most of McDonald's business is based on what they call `heavy users,' and they have advertising specially targeted at them. So what Morgan did is extreme, but it's valid."

But is it also, as Schlosser feels, "entertaining and funny as hell"? Only intermittently. The danger of doing a documentary as Me-based as this one is that it's difficult to broaden the first-person focus and vary the dear-diary effects. To be fair, Spurlock includes useful sketches of fast food and soda companies invading schools while phys ed programs wane. He interjects expert testimony and debunks the work of franchise-friendly specialists.

But the only suspense comes from visits to doctors, a nutritionist and an exercise physiologist. And the only "big" movie moments come from a particularly touchy medical exam, his bout of vomiting and his vegan-chef girlfriend's confessions about their deteriorating sex life.

Still, if anyone made a factual movie based on Fast Food Nation that lived up to its source, Spurlock's yuckumentary would complement it on a double bill. Examining the legal and political maneuvering and the manufacturing and selling strategies of fast-food empires, Schlosser puts together a terrifying fresco of cultural homogenization, rampaging advertising-fueled obesity and dehumanizing labor practices both in meat-packing plants and food outlets. Spurlock arrives at many of the same conclusions from a concerned-consumer point of view. Together they give you the whole picture.

Spurlock's movie is the real-life slapstick record of a kamikaze Mac attack. Schlosser's book is the contemporary equal of Upton Sinclair's classic meatpacking muckraker The Jungle.

Super Size Me

Documentary by Morgan Spurlock Unrated

Released by IDP

Time 96 minutes

Sun Score ***

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