Super Size Me

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Friendly, easygoing Morgan Spurlock finds the documentary’s killer application with “Super Size Me,” a gut-wrenchingly funny examination of America’s obsession with fast food buoyed by the director’s own freakish experiment: Spurlock will eat only at McDonald’s restaurants for thirty days, and measure the results of the disastrous diet on his health.  Of course, it’s really no contest when you consider that Spurlock is grossly exceeding the recommended daily intake of salt, sugar, fat, and calories, but the journey is both horrifying and hysterical, as our protagonist gains serious weight, watches his cholesterol spike and completely loses his sex drive.

Spurlock has all the tenacity of Michael Moore, but presents himself and his arguments in a less combative manner.  He could be you or someone you know, and the self-effacing humor with which he affably goes about trashing his liver engenders both audience interest and sympathy.  Enlisting three doctors and a nutritionist (who form a Greek chorus of increasing shock and stupefaction as Spurlock’s health takes a nosedive), Spurlock shrewdly supplements his daily intake of Big Macs and Quarter Pounders with alarming side trips and face-to-face interviews with a healthy (and unhealthy) cross-section of Americans affected in one way or another by the perils of the modern diet.

Leaving Manhattan to travel the country, Spurlock introduces us to characters who would not be out of place in Harvey Pekar, Daniel Clowes, or R. Crumb: a rail-thin nerd who has consumed more than 19,000 Big Macs; narrative pop-culture artist Ron English, whose gruesome paintings of sinister Ronald McDonald-esque child clowns echo Spurlock’s sentiments about brand imprinting; and former surgeon general David Satcher, practically at a loss to account for the poor eating choices of millions of Americans.  Spurlock never strays far from center stage, though, and in one of his most telling moments, struggles to find the pamphlets with nutrition information that should be readily available at all McDonald’s stores (in one case the poster is hidden behind a promotional standee; in another, a manager thinks some of the flyers are in the basement).

Spurlock deals with corporate irresponsibility as well as the powerful influence that food giants have on public school lunch programs (getting kids hooked on processed and refined vittles of low nutritional quality in order to turn a profit), but he does not go as far as Eric Schlosser in “Fast Food Nation,” the eye-opening bestseller that covered some of the same ground.  Spurlock does not, however, skimp on the alarming statistics, which he presents in a colorful, amusing parade of animated graphics designed to stun and titillate in equal measure.

“Super Size Me” never completely addresses the question of personal responsibility in matters of public health.  Spurlock peers into the same crystal ball that less-flashy doomsayers have been using for some time, and seems to say that education is no match for the advertising budget of McDonald’s and the happy-go-lucky characters that populate McDonaldland.  Children shown a set of pictures of notable figures easily picked out Ronald McDonald while frequently blanking on President Bush.  Like Spurlock vomiting his French fries on the pavement, this is as gruesomely comical as it is distressing.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 7/5/04. 

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