Surely the only documentary ever brought to you by pomegranate juice, Morgan Spurlock’s “POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold” is a consistently amusing and not entirely vacuous stunt. Having tested audience patience and his own credibility with “Where in the World Is Osama bin Laden?,” Spurlock returns to his pop-provocateur roots and tackles a subject — the ubiquitous nature of advertising and product placement — for which his flippant, self-aggrandizing approach seems entirely appropriate. Courting sponsors even as it opens a stimulating discussion about the ethics of selling out, pic should renew the Spurlock brand with healthy, if not super-sized, returns.
Picked up by Sony Classics just a few days before its premiere in Park City (where the announcement of POM Wonderful as title sponsor was made after the first screening), “Greatest Movie Ever Sold” begins with a rapid-fire montage of photos, commercials and movie clips to convey the overwhelming glut of advertising in today’s culture. Apparently staggered by the fact that everything nowadays seems to come with a label, logo or tie-in, especially movies, Spurlock sets himself a wacky challenge: Make a documentary about product placement, financed entirely through product placement.
Already a master of self-promotion, as well as a past and present subscriber to the Michael Moore philosophy of making yourself central to your movie, Spurlock spends the often-hilarious first act trying to contact the publicity departments of innumerable well-known brands. Most of the companies respond with confusion and vague suspicion, but after numerous rejections (and, in the case of Guess Jeans, personal disses), Spurlock and his team succeed in securing a host of promotional partners, at least one of which signs on under the condition that the film open in at least 200 theaters and gross the improbable “doc-buster” sum of at least $10 million.
“The goal of this film is transparency,” Spurlock says, and if that sounds a mite self-congratulatory, it happens to be a rare example of truth in advertising. The helmer walks his sponsors through the process of how each placement will work: For the rest of the film, Spurlock will drink only POM (all other beverages will be blurred out), stay only in Hyatt hotels, fly only JetBlue, drive only Mini Coopers and conduct multiple on-camera interviews at Sheetz gas stations. The boardroom negotiations, in which Spurlock and his partners discuss the delicacy of brand perception and the dos and don’ts of successful marketing, are at least as instructive as an episode of “Mad Men.”
Wobbly, uneven and madly self-referential, pic loses some of its comic momentum as it progresses, and not all of its detours pay off: A trip to Sao Paulo, where advertising has been banned, proves memorable, but too much screen time is devoted to a Florida school district that has found a way to turn advertising to its advantage. Impromptu commercials for many of the aforementioned products, starring Spurlock and peppered throughout the pic, feel anticlimactic since they’ve been so meticulously set up.
Yet the strength of “Greatest Movie Ever Sold” is its willingness to entertain paradoxical questions and wear them lightly: Can a movie be art if it’s trying to sell you something? Since product placement relies to some degree on viewer ignorance, does it count as such if the methods of manipulation are thoroughly deconstructed for the audience? Can a filmmaker maintain creative control without caving to sponsor approval? Can a movie illuminate the nature of advertising while partaking of its benefits? The answers may prove elusive, but Spurlock makes them fun to think about.
While he touches only briefly on the long history of product placement in movies and television, Spurlock does interview a handful of Hollywood figures who discuss their battles with studios and advertisers on the art-vs.-commerce frontlines (“Artistic integrity, whatever,” Brett Ratner is heard to scoff). Helmer also receives some friendly yet chastening advice about the dangers of whoring oneself from Noam Chomsky and Ralph Nader, to whom Spurlock happily recommends a pair of Merrell shoes.
Zippy, graphics-heavy visual approach is perfectly of a piece with the subject matter. For the record, Variety is one of the brands featured, fleetingly, in the film.