An entertaining gross-out, cautionary tale, tyro director Morgan Spurlock's "Super Size Me" personalizes the warnings in runaway bestseller "Fast Food Nation" by submitting the filmmaker himself to a diabolical experiment: For 30 days he eats only from McDonald's menu. Docu's standout popularity at Sundance suggest sleeper success.

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An entertaining gross-out, cautionary tale, tyro director Morgan Spurlock’s “Super Size Me” personalizes the warnings in runaway bestseller “Fast Food Nation” by submitting the filmmaker himself to a diabolical experiment: For 30 days he eats only from McDonald’s menu. The havoc this wreaks on a hitherto athletically fit body will have most viewers running for the nearest salad bar. While docu’s slight air of “reality TV” stuntdom and self-promotion make it seem most suitable for TV, its standout popularity with Sundance auds suggest sleeper arthouse success — though any distrib concerned about fast-food tie-in deals should pass on this one.

Affable, amusing and attractive in an average-Joe-post-college way, Manhattan resident embarks on his high-caloric, low-nutritional value odyssey after first getting checked out by a battery of doctors and nutritional experts. Finding him in the pink of health, they’re not too concerned about his curious plan — though that changes radically as the diet’s fast-developing harms (in some ways commensurate to acute alcoholism) take hold.

One party concerned from the start is protag’s girlfriend, who’s appalled by the scheme (she’s a vegan chef).

To further heighten the worst-case-scenario potentialities, Spurlock must answer yes every time a McD’s employee asks him “Do you want that Super Sized?” — which translates to 42 ounces’ sugar-loaded soda and a half-pound of fries on top of whatever fatty entree he’s ordered. He also commits to exercising no more than the American average — which amounts to little more than walking a mile per day.

From his first, regurgitation-producing attempt to finish a “Super Sized” meal to the final weigh-in, docu leaves little doubt that eating this stuff on a regular (or even occasional) basis is bad, bad, bad for ya. Spurlock gains weight and suffers asthma, chest pains, depression, headaches, sugar/caffeine crashes and heart palpitations. His cholesterol level skyrockets and his liver grows clogged with fat; he gains 25 pounds. By the third week, his shocked medical consultants are basically telling him that his life is in his own hands.

Super-gross as much of this is (including a peek at increasingly popular “obesity surgery”), tenor is primarily humorous in a believe-it-or-not fashion. Traveling the country during his ordeal, Spurlock interviews scholars, “Diet for a New America” author (and Baskin-Robbins ice cream heir) John Robbins, former surgeon general David Sacher, Subway weight-reduction poster boy Jared Fogel, some miscellaneous fast-food freaks and numerous people on the street. McDonald’s execs, however, fail to return his many calls.

While not the all-encompassing, hard-facts indictment “Fast Food Nation” readers might hope for, this more entertainment-oriented package does throw in enough disturbing figures (300,000 Americans die each year of obesity-related conditions) and informative side trips to provide an educational-value meal. It’s noted that most U.S. school cafeterias are now supplied by food corporations whose prepackaged, heavily processed items are scarcely healthier than what’s available at the drive-up window. Significantly, one such institution that switches to a healthier menu witnesses a drastic reduction in behavioral problems — and it’s a school for troubled kids.

Lively editing and Spurlock’s likeability keep what might have seemed a one-joke conceit from palling. Some simple animation, corporate promo clips and subversive original artworks (by Ron English) parodying the child-friendly MacDonald’s mascot characters offer further variety in efficiently assembled doc.

Super Size Me

Production

The Con production. Produced by Morgan Spurlock. Executive producers, J.R. Morley, Heather Winters. Directed by Morgan Spurlock.

Crew

Camera (color, Sony HD cam), Scott Ambrozy; editors, Stela Gueorguieva, Julie "Bob" Lombardi; original music, Steve Horowitz, Michael Parrish; sound, Hans ten Broeke; art direction/animations, Joe the Artist; motion graphics, Jonah Tobias. Reviewed at the Sundance Film Festival (competing), Jan. 18, 2004. Running time: 98 MIN.

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