here is something so seductive about Super Size Me — the idea of the movie, if not the thing itself. How fun: Director Morgan Spurlock commits himself to thirty days of McDonald’s meals, thrice daily, every last french fry and every last quarter of a Quarter Pounder completely downed, Mac-ing it up until it’s sickening, until those Happy Meals start to seem as oppressive as force-feeding yourself Brussels sprouts when you were eight years old, because you couldn’t have Oreos until you finished all your vegetables. It’s one of those ideas everyone likes, one of those-mice-in-a-maze experiments that is based on some unrealized teenage wet dream that was simply never meant to be: a gastronomical version of listening to nothing but Slayer for ten hours a day for a whole month, or watching nothing but MTV for sixteen hours at a stretch for four weeks straight. It’s the kind of thing you would do in earnest as an adolescent, but you could do with impunity and irony as an adult, and as such, there’s a revenge-of-the-nerds aspect to it. It’s saying nyah-nyah-nyah to your pathetic, pimply teenage self, and goodbye to all that. The horrible pink cupcake of a dress you wore to the prom, the wedgie those guys inflicted upon you after gym class junior year – it was all a big bad joke. And now you’re gonna have a big, bad month of big, bad Big Macs to prove that history which was once lived as tragedy can now be repeated as comedy.
Of course, the point of Super Size Me is to prove that living on fast food is not funny at all. Morgan Spurlock, who is both Heisenberg and his elusive electron in this experiment — which is to say, he loses perspective, mistaking his twenty-five-pound weight gain via a 5,500-calorie-a-day diet as a reflection on quality rather than quantity of food — never loses his sense of humor. But we are not meant to miss the high-minded Michael Moore-ism in this. Which is, of course, that Big Macs are killing us. And yes, there is a leitmotif throughout of unreturned phone calls to McDonald’s headquarters, not unlike Moore’s pitiful pursuit of Roger Smith through Flint, Michigan and GM bureaucracy that provided a through-line for Roger and Me.
Strangely, once you get past the premise — as Spurlock calls it, “the con," which lured us into theaters just as the ill-informed have been dragged and, in some sense, drugged into life in the fast-food lane – the movie is not very good. Its only original aspect, the one thing that separates it from newsmagazine-ness, is the amazing adventures of one young man, the explore-nography of it all. Spurlock’s willingness to attempt this stupid human trick is really the only thing that makes it anything other than a super-size segment from Dateline NBC or 20/20 about fast food’s fat content or obesity in America. After all, thirty days of McDonald’s might well be someone’s idea of climbing K2. Morgan Spurlock is the slacker’s David Blaine, a warm and fuzzy alternative to Blaine’s icy, glassy experiments in extended deprivation.
Just as David Blaine is a magician who does not actually create any magic, Spurlock is a filmmaker who has not actually made a movie.
And just as everyone knows someone kind of like Blaine whom they absolutely cannot stand, you most definitely know someone like Spurlock. He is exactly what writers mean when they describe a character as “affable,” which is one of those words that is forever on the page and almost never spoken. If you live in New York City’s East Village, in Silver Lake in Los Angeles or have spent any time passing through Austin or Ann Arbor or Berkeley or any of those college-town classics, you know this guy. Morgan Spurlock lived next door to you freshman year. He was the guy with a two-foot bong. He has spent the last eight years filling out grant applications. He has gotten very good at getting money from arts organizations for assorted projects. You have met him before. You have shot pool with him at the bar down the street. You have watched the NBA playoffs with him, or possibly a couple of March Madness games. He would vote for Howard Dean; he would even wear a button or put a bumper sticker on his car, but he would not actually campaign for him. And he admires Michael Moore a great deal — enough to make a movie which would seem to be in Moore’s mode, enough to make lots of annoying phone calls to some woman named Lisa who works in the corporate communications office of McDonald’s. But he never actually assails anyone in a lobby with an unwarranted, unexpected camera visit. He’s not obnoxious.
He is, yes, pleasant all the way through, but so what? Just as David Blaine is a magician who does not actually create any magic, Spurlock is a filmmaker who has not actually made a movie. But both have performed stupid human tricks. Blaine has, more than once, subjected himself to hideous bodily harm — freezing himself for days in the middle of Times Square, starving himself for weeks in a glass box suspended above the Thames — and then gotten out alive. He is, after all, the Houdini of the reality-TV era, escaping from situations that might not be deadly but are certainly icky. And just as Blaine is all etched cheekbones and arched angles, he seems always to be dating aspiring supermodels (how did this become a career option?) who are also etched and arched and look like they really thought he might die, so it all works out for everyone.
Spurlock’s girlfriend Alex, by the way, is not an aspiring supermodel. She is, in fact, a "gourmet vegan chef" — three words that, by my reckoning, should be in Webster’s as the third or fourth definition of “lunatic.” I have eaten at Anjelica’s Kitchen, the famed vegan outpost in Lower Manhattan. I have tasted what that establishment calls “double chocolate brownies.” I believe the people who attached that name to those edible items should familiarize themselves with mental institutions.
Super Size Me is filled with statistics about obesity. To add heft to his sight gags (e.g. puking up McNuggets in parking lots and driving doctors apoplectic with his blood work) Spurlock totes up the sugar content of the school cafeterias in Middle America and interrogates earnest dieticians about portion control. Maybe we cannot hear these things enough. But I, for one, have heard all this stuff more than I can bear, starting with the extraordinary Fast Food Nation and continuing through an assortment of Dateline NBC and 60 Minutes segments that have thoroughly examined the phenomenon of fatness gone fat crazy.
For what it’s worth, I am not one of those extra special healthy people, nor am I one of those really-good-and-decent sorts. But after reading Fast Food Nation, I have not once bought so much as a Coca-Cola at any of the wretched chains Eric Schlosser describes: McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken. The risk of contracting e.coli and salmonella is the least of it: the labor practices, many of which Schlosser portrays as human rights violations so horrific that Amnesty International ought to intervene, are enough to make most people who are not even that good — I mean, I’m not even a vegetarian — decide not to have anything more to do with that dirty, disgusting system.
And still, when I hear Chef Alex comparing ham to heroin, I too am ready to reach for a Big Mac. As much as Morgan Spurlock would like to believe he is a muckraker or a Moore in the making, the truth is that Super Size Me is obviously a passive-aggressive response to living with a vegan chef who makes every meal into a Marxist sit-in.
©2004 Elizabeth Wurtzel and Nerve.com.
|ABOUT THE AUTHOR:|
|Elizabeth Wurtzel is a lawyer in New York and the author of the books Prozac Nation; Bitch; The Secret of Life; and More, Now, Again. You can follow her at twitter.com/LizzieWurtzel.|