(2011)2.5Perry SeibertThe late, great standup comedian Bill Hicks used to beseech people in his audience who worked in advertising to kill themselves for the betterment of humanity. Director Morgan Spurlock doesn't go that far with Pom Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, his documentary about the alliance between Madison Avenue and Hollywood, but it would be a better movie if he had even just a little of Hicks' righteous disgust.
Spurlock uses only money generated though corporate sponsorships to fund his documentary about filmmakers who partner with corporate sponsors, and structures the film around his search for companies willing to go into business with him. It's a cute idea that does lead to a very funny scene where bigwigs from Ban deodorant sit down with him and spew forth a string of marketing jargon so earnestly that you have to assume Spurlock is mocking this entire process.
Although Spurlock isn't without charm, the movie is at its best when he gets out of the way and lets directors who really have to deal with this practice on a regular basis describe how they feel about the process. The range of opinion is striking -- Brett Ratner doesn't really care if you think he's selling out or not, while Peter Berg recognizes that there are directors who have a certain authority and respect because they refuse to play along. A highlight comes from the always loquacious Quentin Tarantino, who talks about his failed attempts to get Denny's to invest in his early films.
The director does flex his muscle as a celebrated documentary filmmaker by landing interviews with Noam Chomsky, Donald Trump, and Ralph Nader -- this has to be the only movie in history that can list that threesome in the credits. But Pom Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold really only has about 20 minutes of strong material, and he stretches it out to 90 minutes with plenty of smug asides about the absurdity of everything he's investigating.
Unfortunately, when the film tries to tackle bigger issues, like the pervasive penetration of advertising all around us every day, the movie's too glib. A visit to São Paulo, Brazil, a city the size of L.A. that has banned all outdoor advertising, offers a quick glimpse of what a marketing-free utopia really looks like, but Spurlock never quite brings this bigger question of how to avoid advertising into focus.
Although his breakout film, Super Size Me, was accused of being shallow, Spurlock at least recommended an action you could take -- becoming more informed about the food you eat -- if you were so inclined. The big problem with this movie is that he offers no way to change the system, outside of finding a place where there is no advertising. That's not a plan of action, that's admitting defeat in the face of corporate monoliths.