In the documentary Super Size Me, director Morgan Spurlock takes what seems like a fraternity hazing stunt and turns it into an astute statement about the shape of the Union. For thirty days he agrees to eat nothing but what he can buy at McDonald’s for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. He takes us along on his journey from fit to fat to teetering on the brink of liver failure. The results are both harrowing and hilarious.
Spurlock begins by giving us a little background. He shows how we’ve gone from a relatively unhealthy nation to a morbidly obese one in surprisingly short order. Doctors warn that at the rate we’re going, one in three children born in 2000 will develop diabetes. Even smoking is expected to lose its title as the number one preventable cause of death to obesity-related disease. The stakes are clear. But why pick on poor old McDonald’s?
Using recent fast food lawsuits as a jumping off point, Spurlock submits that if McDonald’s food presents no health risk, as the company’s legal statements attest, he should be able to eat it for a month and remain healthy. Specious reasoning at best, but it’s sufficient to get the ball rolling.
Part of what makes this movie work so well is that Spurlock takes the experiment very seriously. He employs two specialists, a general practitioner, and a nutritionist to monitor his progress. He sets down very specific ground rules: Three squares a day. Try everything on the menu at least once. If an employee offers to super size an item, he must say yes. Initially, we share his excitement as he eats his ‘last supper,’ a nutritious meal served by his vegan chef girlfriend.
Things quickly turn unpleasant as the consequences become apparent. That Spurlock’s health deteriorates is predictable, just how much and how rapidly is less so. Even his doctors are amazed that his liver is susceptible, noting that his diet is turning it into ‘pâté.’ Sexual and emotional side effects ensue, much to his girlfriend’s dismay. What begins as a lark transforms into a dangerous exploit and the film’s tone shifts accordingly.
Spurlock’s candor is another crucial element in getting us to care about what he does to himself. His camera is unflinching. When a super-sized dinner makes him vomit, we see it. We bear witness to his rectal exam. When he takes us on a side excursion to investigate gastric bypasses, we see one – from the inside.
The director frequently takes time out from his own narrative to investigate the impact of fast food on children. He takes on school lunches, corporations’ targeting of kids, and the ubiquity of branding (more children recognize Ronald McDonald than Jesus). He manages to stop short of declaring, ‘Will somebody please think of the children?’ But his point is taken.
The cumulative impact of these reports is to suggest the importance of food beyond physical health. A school for juvenile delinquents sees less violence than a normal school after it switches to a healthier lunch program. Spurlock himself notes mood swings that correspond to his eating schedule.
Spurlock’s easygoing manner and wry sense of humor help us root for him throughout. When a psychologist explains that many adults eat at McDonald’s because they associate it with happy childhood memories, Spurlock jokes that when he and his future kids pass a McDonald’s, he’ll punch them in the face.
By its nature, the film presents largely anecdotal evidence to support its claims. Though not bereft of statistics, it remains vulnerable to scientific debunking, and in fact it has received a crush of attention lately from people who have tried similar experiments without ill effect as well as those who simply think Spurlock is a wuss. Regardless, Spurlock’s argument remains compelling if for no other reason than that his targets are so easy: The influence of corporations, the national obsession with image, and the prioritizing of the bottom line over health concerns.
With Super Size Me, Spurlock puts a very human face on questions that concern the nation as a whole. That this face happens to be his own only makes the film more entertaining.
I haven’t touched a Big Mac since. Reviewed at the 2004 Philadelphia Film Festival.
This harrowing film hits DVD with copious extras, including a commentary from Spurlock, extra interviews and deleted scenes, and an interview with the author of Fast Food Nation. Don’t miss the three-minute ‘science experiment,’ which answers the question of what happens to McDonald’s items after they spend 10 weeks in a mason jar. Disgusting.