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'Pom Wonderful Presents The Greatest Movie Ever Sold' is a tough sell

Morgan Spurlock’s latest documentary explores the not-so-subliminal selling that goes on in movies.

Sony Pictures Classics

Morgan Spurlock’s latest documentary explores the not-so-subliminal selling that goes on in movies.

POM Wonderful Presents The Greatest Movie Ever Sold (PG-13) (90 min.) — Like the cagey advertising ploys Morgan Spurlock joshes, his latest documentary offers more sizzle than steak. Not much of The Greatest Movie Ever Sold will surprise anyone, except that São Paulo, Brazil, is the largest city to ban public advertising. Not that there appears to be much to plug in that poverty zone, anyway.

Spurlock is looking like a filmmaker whose first great idea — 2004's dietary expose Super Size Me — may also be his last. Injecting himself into that film's narrative by risking his health with a fast food regimen was a bold entry point into a complex issue. Spurlock is front and center again, financing this movie entirely with product placements — POM Wonderful pomegranate drink bought the title — but the gimmick doesn't trip as many social landmines this time.

It's no shock that advertisers sneak products into movies and television shows, a common practice ever since E.T. ate Reese's Pieces for a price. We're fairly desensitized by now. Spurlock can't beat 'em, or fully explain 'em, so he joins 'em: "not selling out but buying in," as one Madison Avenue consultant suggests.

Spurlock's meetings with skeptical corporate types are punctuated by comments from filmmakers about how product placement — or in Quentin Tarantino's case, being turned down by Denny's — influences creativity. Spurlock begins worrying that his documentary will be co-opted then goes with the flow, dropping in clever commercials for his sponsors. Bagging a theme song from OK Go in exchange for billing as "greatest band in the world" is a catchy touch.

As the movie progresses, Spurlock's stunts only prove that the strategy works, not what consumers can do about it other than beware, except he makes it seems so cheery. I'll certainly keep his sponsors in mind when needing air travel, a soft drink or a shampoo fit for humans and horses.

The Greatest Movie Ever Sold doesn't provoke many feelings beyond amusement. The obstacle Spurlock can't overcome is that advertising saturates U.S. culture and São Paulo's plan is impossible here. There's no crusade where there's no goal to achieve. Better to take Ralph Nader's advice and just sleep. But wait until after the end credits to watch Nader "buy in," too. B

Steve Persall, Times film critic

'Pom Wonderful Presents The Greatest Movie Ever Sold' is a tough sell 05/25/11 [Last modified: Thursday, June 2, 2011 12:03pm]

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