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Counting Calories 

Every now and then, there are those rare moments where gimmick turns into something bigger. In the land of the "What if?" story ideas, it would have been easy to dismiss Super Size Me as a one-trick pony. But writer-director Morgan Spurlock has come up with something of greater depth and meaning than the initial idea might have suggested. With Spurlock's debut, which at times out-Michael Moores Michael Moore, we might just have ourselves an extra-value meal of filmmaking.

The set-up, which Spurlock admits came while flopped out in a post-Thanksgiving dinner haze back home in West Virginia, is as novel as it gets: spend an entire month eating nothing but the fat- and cholesterol-laden menu offered by McDonald's, and record the results. Along the way, watch as he gains 30 pounds, suffers from higher blood pressure, and a liver that, according to one member of his medical team, resembles paté.

But Spurlock's smarter than that, paralleling the charting of his growing belly with a study of the growing of bellies across the country. He interviews an incredible range of health experts, almost all of whom provide sometimes wonkish information about our nation's obsession with fast food (and ever-growing dominance of corporations over our culture) in accessible fashion. (With Moore's hilarious but extremely flawed Bowling for Columbine, we get conversations with Matt Stone and Marilyn Manson.) Spurlock, it should be noted, won the Best Director prize at this year's Sundance Film Festival.

Spurlock comes with the statistics early and often, and seemingly never stops, frequently punctuating them with what he believes (but not always is) the cheeky punchline. He's no dummy; he sees that a movie built on obesity -- something that's getting closer and closer to all of our homes -- could be a house of cards.

Still, the numbers (pick any) are jarring. Like, 400,000 deaths from weight-related illnesses; each day, one person in four goes into a fast-food restaurant; McDonald's comprises 43 percent of the fast-food market, and is located everywhere, including hospitals. "That's right, even hospitals," Spurlock chirps, in voice-over. "At least you're close when your coronary kicks in."

Not long afterward, he has set up his four basic ground rules: he could eat only what was served over the McDonald's counter; he would order a "super size" version only if prompted; because 60 percent Americans do not exercise, neither will he, beyond the walking that is a part of every New Yorker's routine; and he had to eat every item on the menu (including those delicious McDonald's salads). This latter choice, at least as shown on the screen, is a bit misleading. Only once did I recall him ordering a salad, which doesn't have to include the entirety of the accompanying salad dressing, but he happily drizzles away. The point: While there's no running away from the reality of a fat-laden McDonald's meal, there are some, if flimsy, escape routes.

He gets off to rather auspicious start; after a "Last Supper" courtesy his fretting, vegan-chef girlfriend, Spurlock literally pukes out one of his early meals, consumed like many of them in an SUV parked off to the side. Nice. And then he's off on the journalistic side of journey, interviewing experts from several fields, even journeying to Texas, home of some of the fattest cities in the nation including No. 1, Houston. He interviews the attorney at the head of the (failed) lawsuit against McDonald's brought on by two obese teens. The attorney, John Banzahf, a Georgetown law professor, who was also in on the tobacco lawsuits, makes a brilliant point about the concept of "brand imprinting." (Think of the candy cigarettes supplied children at an early age.) To which Spurlock responds, "That's why, every time when I have kids, when I drive by a McDonald's I'm gonna punch 'em in the face."

As the movie progresses, Spurlock builds a very strong case against McDonald's in particular (the company repeatedly ignored his interview requests) and the corporate food industry in general. Most telling was trip to a public high school who contracts with the food service Sodexho, which appears to be pushing nothing but fat- and sugar-high content food. Yet, at a magnet school for at-risk kids, where the administration opted for a healthier menu (at exactly the same cost), the kids were better behaved, better motivated and appeared to be turning their lives around.

Spurlock makes his points clearly with ever the cheeky comment, but even still, Super Size Me kind of sputters toward its inevitable conclusion. (Apparently it only takes a couple weeks to realize eating Mickey D's 24/7 is gonna kill you in the not-too-distant future.) With his doctors' eyes bugging out and his girlfriend fretting over his bowling-ball belly and decreased sex drive, Spurlock looks like a guy trying to gut out the final moments of a pie-eating contest. So the final course comes off as a bit of an anti-climax. That's OK. It's why we invented dessert. Would you like a hot apple pie with that?

click to enlarge Morgan Spurlock weighs the pros and cons of living on McDonald's food in the hilarious and informative documentary Super Size Me.
  • Morgan Spurlock weighs the pros and cons of living on McDonald's food in the hilarious and informative documentary Super Size Me.
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