Tooling around Manhattan on my first day in the United States in the summer of 1978, I dropped into a deli and ordered a pastrami sandwich for lunch. Back home in England, I’d have been presented with two meager slices of spongy white bread wrapped around a sliver of elderly beef adorned with wilting lettuce. Here I got half a cow encased in two doorsteps of rye bread lavishly upholstered in mustard. That sandwich was my first introduction to the dimensions of American plenty, and for a while I was like Alice in Wonderland — over the next six months I gained 10 pounds.
Which is nothing compared to what filmmaker Morgan Spurlock did to his waistline and his arteries 25 years later when he embarked on a strict McDonald’s diet in New York City, home to more branches of the company than any other town in the U.S. (including, he tells us, Houston, Texas, America’s fattest metropolis). Spurlock’s jovial documentary, Super Size Me, is a chronicle of his monthlong wallow in mega-fat and sugar. Watched over by his good-naturedly tut-tutting girlfriend, who happens to be a vegan chef, and monitored by three different medical specialists, a nutritionist and a health-club cheerleader, Spurlock doggedly ate his way through breakfast, lunch and dinner under the golden arches of a corporation widely accepted as chief culprit in the nation’s (and, imminently, the world’s) obesity epidemic. He maintained a normal exercise regimen and Super Sized only when invited to do so — which was pretty frequently — by mostly chubby counter help. Still, by the time he reached the last McSupper, he had gained a hefty 25 pounds, compromised his liver and his heart, and was hurtling between lethargy and depression, and manic overdrive. Whether because of his sugar highs or because Spurlock has a day job making commercials and MTV videos, Super Size Me is served up with a frat-boy jokiness that’s alternately amusing (“Right now I’ve got some McGas that’s McRocking,” he moans as he chows down on his first double Egg McMuffin) and altogether too much information for those of us without a burning desire to witness Spurlock’s pre-diet rectal exam, or the pool of vomit that results from a Super Sized meal washed down by several pints of Coke.
One suspects, too, that Spurlock’s flair for the dramatic scene is all too infectious. At least one of his doctors — who looks as though he could use a good health regimen of his own and keeps glancing at the camera while registering his outrage at the decline in his patient’s liver function — appears a touch overenamored of his 15 minutes. Still, the speed with which a healthy, relatively young stud can morph into a tub of lard is as horrifying as it is entertaining to watch. For greater credibility, Super Size Me is liberally sprinkled with testimony from the usual array of experts and scads of well-padded consumers, a shocking number of whom have no idea how to define a calorie, though most think it’s something bad. This would make for a more startling movie had the media not already gotten out the word about who’s principally to blame for America’s fat problem: an industry peddling crappy food, at very low overhead, in ever-increasing quantities, while slipping in a few new salads low on the menu.
Spurlock wades gamely but inconclusively into the debate over whether adults ought to be able to regulate their own food consumption. His anger, and his most damning evidence, are properly reserved for the fast-food corporations’ shameless targeting of children (the movie was inspired by the case of two obese girls who sued McDonald’s, and lost) via larded-up school lunches and tie-ins, and producing a generation of premature diabetics and cardiac patients. Spurlock shows a bunch of kindergartners some flash cards: Hardly any of them recognized a picture of Jesus, but every one of them ID’ed Ronald McDonald.
Those who imagine their kids are immune are fooling themselves. The morning after I saw Super Size Me, I described the movie over fresh strawberries and soft-boiled eggs to my 6-year-old daughter, who has yet to set foot in a fast-food joint. She listened patiently, then smiled brightly and said, “Mom, can we go to McDonald’s? On TV it says they give you a toy.”
SUPER SIZE ME | Directed by MORGAN SPURLOCK | Produced by SPURLOCK and THE CON | Released by Roadside Attractions and Samuel Goldwyn Films | At the ArcLight