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2004, dir. Morgan Spurlock
96 min. Not Rated.
Starring: Morgan Spurlock.

Review by Noel Wood

Five years ago, I was working in a mall. My options for meals were pretty much limited to Wendy's, Del Taco, Chick-Fil-A, and a handful of other joints that were bastions of artery-clogging food products. I felt awful all the time, woke up sore every day, and gained a fair amount of weight. When I got out of that environment and was less reliant on fast food for at least one meal a day, a lot of that went away. Now that I'm pushing 30 and am starting to get kinda paranoid about some basic health issues, I actually analyze almost everything I put in my mouth.

I eat fast food. Not constantly, mind you, and not nearly in the quantities I did five years ago, but I do. I eat the stuff more than I probably should, and that's still only 2-4 times a week on average. I almost always feel guilty when I do, but it's damn near impossible to avoid it. My schedule requires me to grab a quick bite between jobs on at least two days out of the week or be forced to either pay a fortune for dinner at a sit-down restaurant or stay hungry until I get home at 11:00 at night.

Not that you care about any of that, but let's face facts: there are a lot of fat people in America. And I'm not talking a little beer gut or a booty that Sir-Mix-A-Lot would sing about or people that don't look like the girls in Waifs Monthly. I'm talking people so fat that they ride around Wal-Mart on a Little Rascal because they stand up under their own weight for more than a few minutes at a time. Of course, America has gotten so fat that they've chosen to place the blame on everyone but themselves. At one point, a group of gravity-challenged Americans filed a class action lawsuit against the biggest player in the fast-food industry, McDonald's, for making them a bunch of heifers.

Yep, as ridiculous as that sounds, Mickey Dees had to sit in court and hear people blame them for their own diets. But while most of us were laughing at such a ridiculous concept, Morgan Spurlock was getting movie ideas. Spurlock vowed to go on a binge of nothing but McDonald's three times a day for one whole month, while filming his exploits for all the world to see. SUPER SIZE ME is the documentary film that chronicles his McMonth.

Before beginning, Spurlock visited three different doctors to get a reading of his health. Turns out he's going into this thing with near perfect health, helped by his vegan chef girlfriend's cooking and his tendency to do a lot of walking in Manhattan. He sets forth some ground rules for his little experiment: he can only eat food items offered on the McMenu, he must supersize when and only when he is asked to do so, and he must try everything on the menu at least once.

What follows is painful to watch. Sure, the McDonald's food looks pretty appetizing to start, but it's only a couple days in before it begins to take effect. Spurlock starts feeling bad, waking up tired, and even tosses at least one meal right back outside of the car it was just consumed in. He returns to his doctors in regular intervals for checkups, only to find that his health conditions are diminishing rapidly. He gains weight, his cholesterol and triglycerides levels soar, and the doctors advise that he abort the experiment before he suffers permanent liver or kidney damage. His sex life suffers, and at one point he wakes up short of breath and palpatating.

Throughout the film, facts about the fast food industry are presented to the viewer, as well as some other astonishing revelations. Spurlock visits an elementary school cafeteria, where children treat themselves to french fries, pizza, sodas, and ice cream while eschewing anything resembling a square meal. The school turns its head, denying any responsibility for the poor dietary habits these kids are rapidly picking up on. Now, it hasn't been that long since I was in grade school, but when I was there, we had real food. Sure, you had pizza day once a week, and burger day every now and then, but generally it was spaghetti or chicken with a couple of side vegetables. The high school I attended opened up a second food bar after I graduated, where students could choose to grab the more junk-foodish entrees on a daily basis. Now, I don't know about you, but if I were fifteen years old and given a choice between roasted chicken with green beans and mashed potatoes or a burger and fries every day, I know what I'd choose. Are the schools contributing to a fat America with tons of health problems by giving these kids a message that it's okay to eat like shit everyday?

One thing becomes painfully apparent while watching the film: some people just don't get it. At one point, Spurlock attends a meeting where Subway posterboy Jared Fogel has just given a pep talk and meets with a fourteen-year-old girl who can't possibly weigh any less than 2 bills. She says that Jared has inspired her, but clearly misses his message when she complains that she couldn't possibly afford to eat Subway twice a day for two years like Jared did. Rather, she turns to self-pity and carries an attitude that she can't do anything about her weight.

As a documentary, SUPER SIZE ME is both entertaining and informative. The facts are presented in a way that don't push an agenda, and the clever editing and fantastic use of music help keep this a fun film to watch. Some musical gems like Wesley Willis' "Rock and Roll McDonald's" and The Violent Femmes' "Fat" bring the film to life. One of the most effective scenes involves Curtis Mayfield's "Pusherman" looped over a montage of youth-aimed McD commercials, with Ronald McDonald looking eerily like he belongs on a corner pushing narcotics.

Of course, the obvious thing to do is compare Spurlock to Michael Moore, as both have made waves with their controverial films made in the documentary style. There's really no comparison, though. While Moore's a great filmmaker, what he does is purely editorial. It pushes an agenda. Spurlock avoids doing that here. He never places the blame for the fattening of America on the shoulders on the fast food industry, but at the same time questions where we should draw the line at personal responsibility. But still, much like Moore, Spurlock has received a tsunami of backlash for his film.

One website in particular is devoted exclusively into debunking the findings of Spurlock's experiments. They try to base their argument that Spurlock could not have gained as much weight as the film claims by trying to do the math with calorie intake, completely forgetting that there are dozens of things that can contribute to weight gain or loss. I've personally seen a difference of as much as five pounds up or down in a given day, based on certain factors. And sure, when you're woofing down Big Macs and Quarter Pounders you're getting plenty of calories, but think about the other factors. How much sodium are you eating, and in turn, how much water are you going to retain?

It's actually amazing at how much venom these sources spew at Spurlock. I can understand the backlash with Michael Moore -- everyone has a view on politics, and Moore's subject matter is certainly very touchy for some belief systems. But really, are there people out there who are trying to debunk the idea that fast food isn't healthy? I mean, like, other than the marketing departments for the companies themselves? It seems ludicrous that so many people are trying to paint Spurlock as a liar, a fraud, and an idiot, when it's clear he's not telling us anything we don't already know.

I've even heard the arguments myself while discussing the film. "That's ridiculous! It's a faulty premise! If I eat nothing but celery and carrots for a month, I'd get sick too!" Yeah, well, maybe so. But the carrot and celery industry aren't selling you on the idea that their food constitutes a "meal". That word itself has changed meanings in the past several years, and the blame for that has to fall on the shoulders of McD's and the like. A "meal" used to imply that you were eating a balanced set of foods. Nowadays, "meal" just means "enough food to fill you up." Remember, it wasn't that long ago that the fast food joints were devoid of "extra value meals".

I guess it all comes down to that idea of "personal responsibility" again. Spurlock gets railed for presenting the idea that America is getting fatter and making poorer health decisions daily, while the same people coming after him probably suck down those greaseburgers like they're going out of style. Not only do they want to avoid blame for their dietary decisions, but they also want to keep the industry afloat so that they'll always have the ability to support their habit.

Yeah, I know that I'm ranting a bit off-subject here. But it does lead up to me making a point here: Shortly after this film debuted at Sundance, McDonald's announced that they were dropping the "supersize" option on their menus. Not too far after that, they put milions of dollars behind an ad campaign for "adult happy meals", which offer a salad, bottled water, and a pedometer. So, basically, in a nutshell, while fat America may be bitching that Spurlock is treading on holy ground, the one entity that matters was listening. Mickey Dee's caved. Granted, there's no way to tell for sure if this is a direct result of SUPER SIZE ME's impending nationwide release, but it sure is too good a coincidence not to think otherwise.

But if that is indeed the case, then Spurlock has done one thing that Michael Moore has yet to do.


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