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Should I Watch..? 'Super Size Me' (2004)

Benjamin is a former volunteer DJ at his local hospital radio station. He has been reviewing films online since 2004.

Supersize Me's poster.

Supersize Me's poster.

What's the Super Size Deal?

Super Size Me is a documentary film released in 2004 and was written, produced, and directed by its star, independent filmmaker Morgan Spurlock. The film serves as an exposé on the practices and business habits of the fast-food industry, specifically, Mcdonald's, as Spurlock undertakes a 30-day diet of eating nothing but McDonald's food. The picture documents Spurlock on this dangerous journey, charting the dramatic effect on his physical health as well as his mental well-being. The film was intended to illustrate how fast food companies encourage poor nutrition for their own profit and make their products as psychologically addictive as they are damaging to health. The film was a sensation, propelling the issue into the mainstream as well as earning more than $22 million at the global box office. Although the film was warmly received by critics, it has also generated counter-arguments and controversy over the film's message and comedic tone.

Unmissable

What's It About?

Spurlock, who is judged to be in above average shape by his personal trainer, consults five experts about his proposed "McDiet" who all advise him against undertaking it. The experiment runs from February 1st to March 2nd, 2003, and Spurlock insists on sticking to his rules: exclusively eating breakfast, lunch, and dinner at a McDonalds (only going super-sized if it's offered by the staff) and eating every item on the McDonalds menu at least once during the 30 day period. Abandoning his ordinary diet, Spurlock quickly finds himself putting the pounds on as his weight balloons from 185 lbs at the beginning to around 210 lbs.

Although Spurlock's consulted experts all predicted that his McDiet would not be good for him, the results took all of them by surprise. Indeed, it looks at times as though Spurlock would not physically be able to finish his project. In the end, it would take him over a year on a vegan diet created by his then-girlfriend to lose all the weight he gained as well as giving him issues with his libido, depression, and even liver problems.

Trailer

What's to like?

Like much of Michael Moore's output, Super Size Me is one of those documentaries that not only states what should be common knowledge already but presents it in such a way to maximize its impact. Essentially, this does for fast food (and McDonald's in particular) what the US Surgeon General's 1964 report into the link between smoking and lung cancer did for cigarettes - at least, this was Spurlock's intention. Nobody of sound mind would attempt his stunt in real life because we all know how bad junk food is for us but where the film scores extra brownie points is showing us the fuller picture. The combination of additives, a modern lifestyle that doesn't permit much in the way of exercise, marketing manipulation, and psychological suggestion all create the perfect storm to guide people into ordering these products. Even the healthier options, as experts attest, aren't that healthy by comparison as they are still often loaded with salt and sugar.

Spurlock also imitates Moore's approach in that he combines his science and fact with humor and not just with his Jackass-style stunt. He comes across as a likable and earnest host. But he remains laser-focused on his agenda while expanding his remit to include the decline of physical education in schools and how the government is all too easily swayed by industry lobbyists to prevent legislation being passed to tackle this malpractice. It's a compelling argument certainly and it seems obvious when Spurlock spells it out - after all, what other motivation is there to give out free toys to kids eating this stuff other than to entice them back for more?

Spurlock deserves every credit for exposing the industry the way he does, if not the way he does it. His casual regard for his own health is alarming.

Spurlock deserves every credit for exposing the industry the way he does, if not the way he does it. His casual regard for his own health is alarming.

Fun Facts

  • Within two months of the film's debut at the Sundance Film Festival in 2004, Mcdonald's announced that they would no longer be offering any of their menu items in supersizes. However, the company denied that it had anything to do with this movie.
  • It took Morgan over a year to lose the 25 lbs he put on during the experiment, mainly through the use of a vegan detox diet conceived by his then-girlfriend and now ex-wife Alexandra Jamieson. Her diet was the basis for her book The Great American Detox Diet.
  • Spurlock claimed that branches of McDonald's in New York would often deny him permission to film inside, forcing him to shoot in the car park or just hide the camera. When it came to filming elsewhere in the US, all they had to do was say that they were shooting a movie, and permission was granted without question.
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What's not to like?

Unfortunately, Spurlock also takes another of Michael Moore's film-making tropes: not really giving the other side of the story much of an airing. Granted, McDonald's repeatedly denied Spurlock a request for an interview but many viewers pointed out that Spurlock's methods were less than scientific. He intentionally consumed more food than was necessary and gave up exercising during the experiment so it would be natural for him to put on weight. One dietician also suggested that much of his weight gain would come from sugar in drinks like Coke and milkshakes, as much as a third in fact. There is little getting away from the fact that it feels more like a publicity stunt than a genuine attempt to prove exactly how damaging fast food really is, especially when Spurlock's motivations cause him to ignore the advice of his doctors and dieticians monitoring him. For ordinary folks, that alone would be a wake-up call.

But it's hard to ignore the message Spurlock is delivering, however blatant and obvious it is. Whether it will have a life-changing effect on viewers is unknown (it didn't for me but I never ate McDonald's anyway, even before watching this) but the film's relentless delivery and lack of counter-argument feel especially familiar to viewers of films like Bowling For Columbine or Fahrenheit 9/11. As I said, Spurlock's message isn't especially a shocking one but just delivered in a shocking way. If anyone is surprised by his revelations here then they should probably get out more.

Needless to say, McDonalds do not come out of this film in a positive light. I prefer Burger King anyway...

Needless to say, McDonalds do not come out of this film in a positive light. I prefer Burger King anyway...

Should I watch it?

Super Size Me is not the scientific experiment it claims to be and the central message behind it does not contain much in the way of new information. But the film is still a powerful and enlightening examination of issues that do deserve exposure and Spurlock's daredevil methods suggest the long-term damage caused to the rest of us by an industry with contempt for public health. It's actually more interesting looking at the practices of the industry rather than the products they produce but for anyone with a passing interest in dietary or health matters, it's pretty much unmissable.

Great For: doctors trying to shock patients into losing weight, anyone looking to lead a healthier lifestyle, Spurlock's career

Not So Great For: McDonald's and their shareholders, scientific accuracy, faceless corporate types

What else should I watch?

Michael Moore is the obvious inspiration for Spurlock and countless other documentarians as the man is arguably the most successful documentary filmmaker of his time. Debuting with Roger & Me in 1989, he has been a persistent thorn in the side of corporate America, politicians, the National Rifle Association, and capitalism in general. Bowling For Columbine brought him international attention as it won him the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature while his next film, Fahrenheit 9/11, remains the highest-grossing documentary in history as of January 2021. Other films of his worth considering include his typically incendiary look at health care in the US Sicko and Where To Invade Next, a travelogue examining how other countries address problems affecting life in America. Just don't expect a balanced report or anything: Moore's unabashed liberalism has made him a figure of hate for some, at least if his portrayal in Team America: World Police is anything to go by.

Documentaries examining the food industry aren't exactly rare but they certainly increased in number after the release of Super Size Me. Sadly, none of them have experienced anything like the success of this film although they often look at other aspects of the industry. Wal-Mart: The High Cost Of Low Price examines the retailer's practices including underpaying its workers including migrant labor, their products being produced in sweatshops in countries like Bangladesh, and the company's poor record on worker's rights. Food, Inc. is a provocative look at so-called agri-business in the US, suggesting that low quality and harmful products are being produced in an environmentally damaging way that is harmful to both humans and the animals themselves. Even Spurlock returned in 2017 with Super Size Me 2: Holy Chicken which sees him attempt to open his own restaurant while eschewing the standard practices of the industry, admittedly with limited success.

Main Cast

ActorRole

Morgan Spurlock

Self

Dr Daryl Isaacs

Self - Internal Medicine

Dr Lisa Ganjhu

Self - Gastroenterologist

Dr Stephen Siegel

Self - Cardiologist

Bridget Bennett

Self - Nutritionist

Eric Rowley

Self - Exercise Physiologist

Alexandra Jamieson

Self - Morgan's girlfriend & vegan chef

Technical Info

DirectorMorgan Spurlock

Writer

Morgan Spurlock

Running Time

100 minutes

Release Date (UK)

10th September, 2004

Rating

12A

Genre

Documentary

Academy Award Nominations

Best Documentary Feature

© 2021 Benjamin Cox

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