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I walked into Morgan Spurlock's new documentary when it was titled The Greatest Movie Ever Sold-- and walked out to an e-mail press release that the title had changed to POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold. That was just one of the many terrifically tricky things about this film, which twists itself around in so many meta narratives about product placement and filmmaking that by the end you barely even know what month you're in. Spurlock's movie, of course, is superbly entertaining, an irreverent and sardonic look at business of product placement and how completely corporations can, and do, control the movie business. I'm not convinced that any of this is actually revelatory or incisive-- if you're not aware that Coca Cola helped make Iron Man 2 a success, you're not paying attention-- but that doesn't take away from the sheer entertainment and frequently sad truths in Spurlock's film.
As complicated and meta as the film can be it darts along beautifully, Spurlock front and center as he documents his quest to fund a documentary-- the very documentary we're watching-- entirely through product placement. After a jazzy opening briefly running down all the product placement we see on a daily basis. Spurlock takes us through his meetings with branding experts, marketing execs and company CEOs as he undertakes the daunting task of convincing multinational corporations to buy product placement in a movie that most definitely will be tearing down the very process. But once the sponsors step on board Spurlock is true to his word, drinking POM Wonderful in every shot, conducting interviews at a JetBlue Terminal or Sheetz convenience store, driving a Mini Cooper all over the place and, in one hilarious scene, pitching Ralph Nader on his comfortable Merrell shoes. The companies that join in Spurlock's stunt make a crazy kind of sense, each of them aiming for that off-the-wall appeal that Spurlock has had since Super Size Me. He somewhat disingenuously tries to seek out his "brand identity" early in the film, but it's clear he's known all along-- he's a showman and a self-promoter, some just outsider enough to give these corporations some edge but cuddly enough not to bite them back too hard.
In addition to all the executives and advertisers who help him on his crazy quest, Spurlock meets with an enormous variety of people who know a thing or two about consumers and branding, from Hollywood directors like Peter Berg and Brett Ratner (who unleashes the amazing line "Artistic integrity? Whatever") to NPR's On the Media host Bob Garfield and linguist Noam Chomsky. Two members of the band OK Go! talk about selling their music to commercials entirely because of the money, Outkast's Big Boi explains they never did a Got Milk? ad because Andre 3000 didn't drink the stuff, and Quentin Tarantino admits he tried to get Denny's on board for that famous diner in Pulp Fiction, to no effect. The huge variety of faces make the film a little unfocused-- Spurlock also ventures to a Florida high school, man on the street interviews in Times Square and a trip to Jimmy Kimmel Live!-- but all that bouncing around helps the movie feel less like an expose and more like a wild adventure through the advertising world.
Seeing the film at Sundance, a few months before the planned release from Sony Pictures Classics, makes the meta experience a little disorienting-- the Jimmy Kimmel sequence will have aired by the time of theatrical release but feels like a dispatch from the future now, and the posters for the movie around New York must have been put up as a stunt for filming and not actual advertising. But by the time the movie is released the twisted puzzle will be complete and perfect; the first step of the process as Spurlock pitched it to his advertisers was to "build buzz" for Greatest Movie, and a Sundance screening as raucous and warm as this one is precisely what he was going for. Even if it doesn't teach you that much you didn't know about product placement, POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold opens your eyes a bit about the process, both of the ads and the movies they pay to be part of. It's a strange journey well worth taking.