I first heard about Morgan Spurlock’s masochistic romp through grease and fat back in Fall 2003. The girl I was currently seeing happened to have done the still photography for it, and mentioned the project to me in passing. At the time, my reaction was similar to that of Scott Ambrozy (the Director of Photography) when Spurlock initially suggested the concept to him. Supposedly, Ambrozy bust into hysterics (this was back on Thanksgiving 2002), and said, “Wow, that’s a really great bad idea.” I must admit, I thought much the same thing. How interesting could seeing some dude pig out be? Very, it turns out. Super Size Me is one of the most important movies in the past several years and may be the best of a recent spurt of strong documentaries (Capturing the Friedmans, To Be and to Have, The Fog of War, etc). Beyond his self-flagellation, Spurlock explores the world of obesity and fast food in other ways: visits to school cafeterias, interviews (and attempted interviews) with McDonalds and other related people/companies, and statistical evaluation and analysis. What results is one of the most terrifying reality checks I’ve seen, often horrifying yet frequently hilarious (that Spurlock’s girlfriend is a Vegan chef is the topper!).
For those who don’t know, Spurlock (pictured) decided to embark on a 30-day binge to discover just how dangerous fast food truly is. For one month, he ate nothing but McDonalds—three square meals a day. The following rules applied: he had to try everything on the menu at least once, he’d only super size if asked, and he could only eat items available over the Mickey D’s counter, even water. Spurlock didn’t take this quest lightly; he hired three doctors and a personal trainer to monitor and gauge his process. And then he did it. 90 McDonalds meals, no excuses, starting off in NYC and spanning across Texas (the fattest state in the world; 5 of the 9 super-size ‘requests’ took place there), Los Angeles, and Chicago. The results were astounding. By month’s end, Spurlock gained 25 pounds, going from 185 to 210. His cholesterol shot up, his energy and sex drive shot down. But most disturbingly, his liver damage was on a par with that of extreme binge drinking. Doctors were amazed by this, having no actual idea that an exceptionally fatty diet could have that effect. It took a heavy dosage of salads, prepared by Alex (the aforementioned Vegan girlfriend), to get him back to a reasonable weight. Even now, he hasn’t been able to fully shed the final few pounds, and cringes at the sight of a Happy Meal or anything else chain-related.
The incredibly negative consequences of greaseburgers and ‘Chicken’ McNuggets really smack you in the face while watching Super Size Me. Sure, we all *know* just how bad Mickey D’s is for you. We *know* we should rarely eat it, if at all. But it’s right there in front of us, delicious, sloppy, and moderately priced. And no cooking required. It’s easy to shrug it off under normal circumstances, to say, “Oh, one meal there won’t hurt me.” But seeing Spurlock slowly crumble into an exhausted slug serves as quite a wakeup call. Early on, he’s nothing if not gung-ho about the project, even after puking up an especially large portion on Day 2. By Day 20, however, his enthusiasm is almost completely sapped. There’s no bounce in his step, just a weary desire for it all to be over. You’ve gotta commend his dedication, though – despite doctor’s warnings, Spurlock refused to quit. Whether or not this was the prudent decision is thankfully irrelevant, as Spurlock has since recovered his health. The effects of his actions, though, will likely be felt for years to come.
During his trek around the USA, Spurlock plunges into the Public School system and comes up with a plateful of denial, both parental and corporate. Most of the children eat cookies, chips, ding-dongs, and other such lovely foods as their main course, with some soda to wash it down. Super Size Me cleverly unearths the flawed philosophy that allows this shocking situation to go down—parents normally lack the guts to challenge the system, and the food corporations and school supervisors turn a blind eye by rationalizing. What Spurlock does better than any recent documentary is give the ‘bad guys’ every opportunity to prove their points. All little Johnny took was a coke and some french fries? That’s okay, he probably has a bag lunch with a sandwich and some veggies back at the table! When the woman at the school says this, Spurlock simply nods and walks over to the table where ‘little Johnny’ is sitting. “You brought something else to eat?” he asks. Little Johnny shakes his head. It’s a simple moment but a stunning one, and perhaps the moment where everything starts to come together. Obesity and the poisoning of our bodies begins with our children, and McDonalds is the primary culprit. Ronald McDonald, playgrounds, Happy Meals, toys…kids become addicted the McDonalds lore before they know a damn thing about how dangerous the food itself is. It’s a warm atmosphere, but as superficial as warmth can get. Not surprisingly, Spurlock’s attempts to score an interview with a Mickey D’s CEO were unsuccessful. Way to go, Corporate America!
Super Size Me never slows down, constantly investigating problems and potential solutions in the area of weight and health care, such as physical education classes, advertising campaigns, etc. One of the more fascinating concepts raised is that of public ‘decorum’ – that is, the unwillingness of our society to boldly speak out about weight problems. It’s considered proper—hell, recommended—to chastise someone for smoking cigs. Let ‘er rip on the poor nicotine fiend! But anyone who’s fat is immune to criticism, when it’s just as dangerous, if not more so! Will we ever be capable of hearing negative words about our stomachs without instantly turning on the defense mechanism and spewing venom in response? At 6’4″, 200 lbs, I never had to worry about obesity growing up, but did have to endure constant taunts during my scrawnier days about my, er, lack of substance. I took said insults as motivation to pack on some pounds, and have since done so, to the point where I now have a perfectly normal build. Will those who struggle to control their weight ever be able to view things like this? After seeing Super Size Me, they just might. It’s the rarest of films, one that constantly provokes thought without being preachy, one that touches all the bases. In fact, I’d say it’s a grand slam to deep right field. You can be sure that McDonalds, Burger King, and other chains won’t be getting a dime of my cash from now on. Hopefully, you’ll say the same after leaving your multiplex on May 7th.