Remember when those two girls sued McDonald's alleging that the restaurant was liable in making them obese? New York-based filmmaker Morgan Spurlock's attention was caught by one key phrase in the court's ultimate decision to toss the case out: whether the fare McDonald's sold was "unnecessarily dangerous." So Spurlock decided to test this criterion -- what would be the result of eating only McDonald's food for one month?
Hence Super Size Me, a rollicking romp through Spurlock's crazy diet that also serves as a loose framework to examine the fact that America is fat, and getting fatter. In this low-budget and easily accessible documentary, Spurlock interviews the man in the street, health researchers, lawyers and policy analysts about why we can't stop consuming Filet-O-Fishes and Big Gulps.
Then there's his Mickey D's diet: Spurlock, an above-average healthy male, enlists three doctors and one dietician to monitor his progress weekly. He sets three basic ground rules: (1) only McDonald's food, no exceptions; (2) every menu item has to be eaten at least once; and (3) if asked to super-size his order, he must do so. It takes Spurlock nearly 25 minutes to consume his first super-size meal; then after suffering through "McGas" and "McSweats," he pukes it up in the McDonald's parking lot.
By week three, his epicurean journey -- which began so benignly with an Egg McMuffin -- has become scary. His advisers are begging him to stop: He's gained an alarming amount of weight, his cholesterol is sky-high, he's experiencing weird pains and mood swings, and his liver is approaching a meltdown (at the month's end, one doctor declares the state of Spurlock's liver "obscene").
Much of what Spurlock shows us in his film is patently obvious, yet the culture of fast food is so deeply ingrained we've long since ceased to see it. When Spurlock cues up footage of Ronald McDonald shilling in TV ads to Curtis Mayfield's "Pusherman," it is both hilarious and jarring. We've forgotten to care that McDonald's blatantly indoctrinates tiny children into craving nutritionally dreadful food by giving away toys, offering playgrounds and employing a spokes-clown.
Spurlock takes dead aim at McDonald's (while acknowledging the other fast-food chains), but he hardly lets us off the hook. After all, we don't have to eat there, and we are complicit in a culture that lets fast food and sexily marketed poor nutrition dominate the landscape. We are abdicating control -- of what, and how, we and our at-risk children eat, in spite of clear knowledge about dire consequences. It's a state of mass denial that's stunning in its breadth.
One encounter depicts how twisted up we've become even by the nominally positive images the industry presents. An overweight teen-age girl is pleased to accept bland advice on weight loss from Jared, the "Subway diet" spokesman. But when Jared leaves, she tells Spurlock that she'd love to lose weight but "can't afford to eat [at Subway] all the time." Astonishingly, she doesn't associate weight loss with eating healthy in general, but with eating a specifically marketed Subway product. It's an alarming illustration of how common sense simply can't compete in today's advertisement-saturated culture: A solution is something to be bought (or not afforded) -- not a fundamental change in lifestyle.
Spurlock does bite off more than he can chew, leaving important aspects of the obesity/fast food problem less discussed. He shows a stomach stapling, but says nothing about the risks or consequences of this dramatic procedure. And for all his haranguing about why we eat badly, he fails to examine the No. 1 risk factor for obesity: being poor. Among other factors, the poor often reside in marketplace wastelands where fresh food might as well be diamonds, and fast-food restaurants are often the only available cheap and ready outside food source.
Yet, Spurlock manages to impart a lot of important information in a very palatable, even laugh-out-loud format. With its irreverent first-person narrative, shocking factoids, sneaky camera and crowd-pleasing gotcha moments, Super Size Me is not unlike a very lively segment of 20/20 skewed toward the Adbusters crowd.
Super Size Me works in great part because Spurlock is such an engaging and game protagonist. He enjoys fast food -- he's just a thirty-something goofball from West Virginia, after all. We can't help but bond with him. At first, it's like he's living our wildest childish dream (eating only McDonald's!). Later, when the experiment turns horrific, we can only cheer: Spurlock is going to the edge for us; he is dying for our sins, so we don't have to. Somebody buy that man a Big Mac.