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SUPER SIZE ME

Review by Michael Jacobson

Director:  Morgan Spurlock
Audio:  Dolby Stereo
Video:  Widescreen 1.78:1
Studio:  Hart Sharp Video
Features:  See Review
Length:  100 Minutes
Release Date:  September 28, 2004

“Everything’s bigger in America.”

Film ***1/2

Morgan Spurlock is the main reason I can’t get Super Size fries at McDonald’s anymore.  I used to want to hit him.  Now, I think I want to thank him.

Spurlock is, of course, the man who gained fame and notoriety for turning himself into the ultimate science project in Super Size Me:  in the interest of exploring the origins of the current obesity epidemic in this country, he subjected himself to a McDonald’s only diet for 30 days.  The rules?  Three meals a day, eat at least one of everything on the menu in due course, and if the server suggested “Super Sizing”, he would do it.

Before beginning, he had himself checked out by three different doctors and was given a clean bill of health.  Over the course of his month, he went back for routine checkups.  You may think yeah, I already know what would happen to someone who does what Spurlock did, but you’ll probably be surprised at how quickly his physical condition deteriorates.  One doctor ends up warning him at about the three week mark that he may be inflicting irreversible liver damage on himself, and even gives him the warning signs to look for so he’ll know when to get himself to the emergency room.

Spurlock’s experiment is the heart of a film that examines a growing health problem worldwide, but especially in the United States.  As he ponders the statistics and notes that not only is obesity the second most prolific preventable cause of death after smoking, he considers how habits we learn as children and the way fast food companies market their wares tie in.

Part of his reason for deciding to make this movie was the then famous lawsuit against McDonald’s brought on behalf of two morbidly overweight teenage girls.  Ironically, as the film ends, we learn that the judge threw out the suit on the basis of there being no evidence that McDonald’s food alone causes health problems like the kind the girls experienced.  He might have reconsidered if he could have gotten a look at Morgan Spurlock at day 30.

As Spurlock’s food challenge plays out, he goes around the nation and looks at what are kids are being exposed to.  With TV, radio and print ads, the average child gets bombarded with about 10,000 food ads a year.  In schools, they’re being served pure crap.  I can’t say my school years were filled with the best lunches possible, but I was totally blown away at what passes for meals today:  chips, candy, Gatorade, fries, pizzas…wow.  And while calorie consumption is going up in schools, physical activity is on the decline:  an unintended consequence of the No Child Left Behind Act was that some schools decided to minimize or eliminate recess and phys ed in order to get the kids’ test scores up.  The children are getting smarter and fatter at the same time.

Personal responsibility is a big part of the makeup of your lifestyle, of course, and Spurlock recognizes that it isn’t all the fast food places’ fault.  He even interviews a guy who has eaten 2-3 Big Macs a day for as long as he can remember.  He looks good and his cholesterol is about 140…even lower than Morgan’s when he starts out. 

But at the same time, he rejects McDonald’s stance that nutritionists agree that an occasional fast food meal can be part of an overall healthy diet.  He interviewed plenty of health experts, and found many who felt fast food shouldn’t be consumed at ALL.

He also considers the effects of the billions spent on marketing every year by the big food companies.  In one segment, he can’t get a group of people to correctly say the Pledge of Allegiance, but they know the ingredients to the Big Mac.  And small children couldn’t identify a picture of Jesus Christ, but knew who Ronald McDonald was.  Kids love McDonald’s because they have playgrounds, clowns, birthday parties and Happy Meals, but while they’re having fun, they’re setting themselves up with eating habits that will affect the rest of their lives.

This is the kind of movie that doesn’t necessarily tell you things you don’t already know, but it DOES assemble all the information in a way that makes it more potent and palatable, and gets you to think about every aspect of an unhealthy diet at once.  Spurlock’s movie is disturbing to a degree, but also humorous, and well put together not only with documentary footage, but with clever animations and bits of artwork.  I could have done without two scenes though:  the rectal exam (thankfully blacked out with a rectangle) and the footage of a gastric bypass operation.  Yeek.

Still, it addresses one of our nation’s biggest problems with candor and frankness, and will undoubtedly serve as a much-needed wake-up call to a country that’s slowly killing itself with food.  For that reason alone, Super Size Me just might be this millennium’s first true must-see movie.

Video ***

The digital video footage translated nicely to film and back to DVD, so despite a relatively low-budget approach, the widescreen transfer serves well with good colors, crisp images and clean levels of detail.  The art and animation definitely add to the experience.

Audio ***

Despite being a simple stereo mix, the audio is livelier than you would expect, with plenty of music cues and sound effects making full use of the front stage.  Spoken words are clear throughout; the one scene where background noise overcomes the dialogue slightly is compensated for with subtitles.

Features ***1/2

The disc starts with an enthusiastic commentary track by Morgan Spurlock and his girlfriend Alex Jamieson (seen in the film giving him a vegan last supper before starting his stint and worrying about his health the whole way).  I’ve often said the best commentary tracks are for the small indie films as opposed to the big money blockbuster, because the filmmakers have more to say about the kind of things you want to hear about, and this track backs up my theory splendidly.

There are six extra interview segments and four deleted scenes…one shows that in addition to the garbage Spurlock put in his body during his McDonald’s binge, he also accumulated 13 bags of actual garbage.  Another is priceless:  “The Smoking Fry” places various McDonald’s foods in glass jars and examines them over a ten week period to see how they break down naturally.  A little gross, to be sure, but one aspect of the experiment will absolutely floor you.

Summary:

Though they claim Spurlock’s movie didn’t influence the decision, McDonald’s has indeed phased “super sizing” out of their menus.  After seeing the film for myself, I don’t think I’ll miss it.  This movie is a true eye-opener and won’t be ignored, at least if we know what’s good for us.  Highly recommended.

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