Having eaten himself into a McDonald’s stupor in his 2004 documentary Super Size Me, Morgan Spurlock sells himself to the highest bidder in The Greatest Movie Ever Sold (2011). This is not a man afraid to throw himself into his work.
The subject is product placement, the stealthy insertion of advertising into the storylines of movies and television shows. When a character holds up a soft drink, the manufacturer has probably paid for the plug in cash or in kind – and may even have insisted that the product not be shown in a bad light and that no other soft drink be featured in the movie.
One way to tackle the topic would be to stitch together 90 minutes of shameless and uproarious examples of this mutual back-scratching. ( Iron Man 2 alone had an estimated 64 placements.) Spurlock does offer a few snippets, relying on the U.S. legal principle of “fair use,” which allows for the editorial use of brief snatches of copyrighted material without charge. An army of Internet users searched the Web for likely clips and sent them to him. There’s even a shot of a young Peter Mansbridge saying, “Well, there’s a revolution going on called the Internet.”
But Spurlock’s movie has a different goal. He is determined to secure the entire $1.5-million budget for a film about product placement by trafficking in product placement. For $1-million, he tells prospective sponsors, you get to have your name in the title of my film. (The full title is POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold. POM makes pomegranate juice.) For less money, you get less prominent plugs.
At first he asks the huge agencies that specialize in such deals to round up sponsors for him. They listen to him and turn him down. “The responses mostly will be no,” one guy tells him. Spurlock says, “But is it tough to sell because of the film or is it tough to sell because of me?” The guy replies, “Uh, both.”
Fortunately for the film, an old friend gives him a few leads. “I love the idea that you’re actually, you know, selling out,” the friend says, “[but] you’re admitting selling out, and therefore not selling out.”
Before long, Spurlock is knocking on doors and phoning people out of the blue. “Nothing like a cold call to show exactly how little power you have,” he says. But he gets nibbles, and is especially tickled by the thought he might be sponsored by Mane ’n’ Tail, a shampoo marketed for use by both humans and horses.
Spurlock does this sort of thing well. He gets his camera into meetings where top-level execs, who are brave enough to put themselves on display but don’t quite know what they’ve let themselves in for, greet his sales routines with politeness, skepticism and, at times, wide smiles.
There’s a lovely moment when, hoping to enlist the makers of Ban deodorant, he asks the execs to tell him what makes Ban special. Long, awkward pause. Finally, one of them says: the technology. (I know from personal experience that Ban has great technology: large rolling ball, easy application. I expect the company to bankroll my next column.)
Throughout the film, Spurlock worries about being co-opted by the sponsors. He ropes in famous critics to tell him he is right to worry. “Out of this film may come a transformed, commercialized, corporatized Morgan Spurlock,” consumer advocate Ralph Nader tells him with a smile, “and you’ll never be able to shake the identity. That’s your peril.”
Spurlock responds by showing Nader a shoe made by one of the sponsors he has landed. The payoff later in the film is too good to spoil here.
For all the doors slammed in his face, Spurlock appears to have things both ways in this film, which is good for his art (cogent discussion of product placement) and good for his film (he got the sponsors). But his contract with POM requires him to sell 500,000 downloads and DVDs. The hustling continues.
OTHER NEW RELEASES
The Beaver (2011)| Mel Gibson, who alienated people with remarks that showed he was wrestling with inner demons, here plays a man who alienates people and wrestles with inner demons. Those who can get past the public figure will find Gibson delivering a strong performance as the suicidally depressed Walter Black. Jodie Foster (who also directs) plays his wife; Anton Yelchin ( Fright Night) plays his troubled older son; and Jennifer Lawrence ( Winter’s Bone) plays Yelchin’s fellow student. The basic story – a man can communicate only through a beaver hand puppet while affecting a voice that sounds a lot like Michael Caine’s – could be played, Foster notes in a commentary, as “a big, broad, fat high-concept comedy” or as a “dark, dark, dark tragedy.” Or “you could honour the absurdity of it.” Her take is on the serious side.
Miss Nobody (2011) This light vehicle for Leslie Bibb ( Zookeeper, Iron Man 2) crosses the office politics of Working Girl with the homicide-as-career-advancement plot of Kind Hearts and Coronets. It’s not in the league of those classics, but it’s a cute, brisk black comedy with amusing turns by Brandon Routh (as an ill-fated, womanizing boss) and Adam Goldberg (as the detective who notices the rising body count in Bibb’s office). When not busy narrating, Bibb’s character speaks directly to the camera, all the better to get the viewer onside – a dubious side, granted.
Win Win (2011) Paul Giamatti has a knack for playing characters worn down by life. Mike, a small-town lawyer in need of money, puts an elderly client in a home, while keeping the money the court pays him to be the man’s guardian. Then the man’s grandson shows up, a sullen lad who is a whiz at wrestling. That’s lucky, because Mike coaches a high-school wrestling team. In the extras, director Thomas McCarthy chats with co-writer Joe Tiboni, a lawyer who has known McCarthy since their days as high-school wrestlers – the spark for this drama about ethical compromises and family ties.