Appetite suppressant, frat-boy stunt, and anti-corporate headbutt all in one juicy if not always wholesome package, Super Size Me records the consequences of a 30-day McDonald’s-only diet, ratcheting up amused horror as the month of increasingly Unhappy Meals takes a nightmarish toll on its test subject. Morgan Spurlock’s self-starring documentary has nothing new to say about America’s fast-food addiction and obesity epidemic, but there’s no denying its grotesque effectiveness. Conflating activism and performance art, the filmmaker’s method does not preclude a few well-timed hits below the (greatly loosened) belt. Super Size Me breezes through some distressing, familiar stats about obesity-related illnesses, but Spurlock, for better or worse, is as slick a salesman as your average fast-food movie tie-in marketing executive: He understands that when it comes to illustrating the perils of a McDiet, nothing does the job like a freshly upchucked double quarter pounder with cheese.
This is one perversely disciplined binge: For the duration, Spurlock must eat three squares a day, everything he consumes has to be ordered off a McDonald’s menu, and he’s compelled to accept every time the Super Size option is offered (the first time this happens, the sheer strain of finishing his lunch causes him to promptly lose it). And since a pedestrian New Yorker gets more exercise than the typical car-to-cubicle American, he restricts himself to walking no more than a mile a day. The extremity of the experiment would seem to undermine its statistical credibility, but as Spurlock points out—and reminds us with spliced-in shots of face-obscured waddlers and man-on-the-street interviews with the nutritionally oblivious—this nutty regimen isn’t that far from how most Americans already live.
The 32-year-old Spurlock begins the month in perfect health, and proceeds under the supervision of a general practitioner, a gastroenterologist, a cardiologist, and a nutritionist. Within days, he’s suffering chest pressure and headaches. His first post-Mac Attack weigh-in shows he’s gained 10 pounds in five days. His vegan-chef girlfriend, Alex, complains that their sex life is affected: “I have to be on top.” But the blood-test results prove less easy to milk for laughs: Blood sugar, uric acid, and cholesterol are all way up, and his liver enzymes, struggling to cope with the spike in fat and sugar intake, have increased tenfold. Two weeks in, his flustered GP tells him, “Your liver is like pâté.” By week three, a fatigued, bloated Spurlock is on his way to cirrhosis. The single most harrowing image in Super Size Me isn’t the regurgitated burger or the gratuitous glimpse of gastric-bypass surgery, but Spurlock—having just been compared by his doctor to Nicolas Cage’s liver-pickling boozer in Leaving Las Vegas—slumped on his couch, miserably unwrapping his umpteenth McDonald’s burger, and . . . taking another bite.
In between pig-outs, Spurlock visits school cafeterias to confirm that the national diet of processed food begins at an early age and that fast-food advertising targets kids, in the sinister hopes that they’ll stay hooked for life. (Noting that McDonald’s terms its frequent patrons “heavy users,” Spurlock scores images of a prancing, evil-grinned Ronald McDonald to “Pusherman.”) Interviews with dietitians notwithstanding, Spurlock is generally too busy chowing down to zoom out for socioeconomic and ideological context—i.e., to consider fast food as the homogenized, globalized mass-opiate big business that it is, and to ask tough questions about food safety and labor conditions, not to mention the political protectionism that keeps consumers and profit margins fat. (The missed opportunities are doubly frustrating since Eric Schlosser’s superb Fast Food Nation suggests so many possible paths of inquiry.)
Still, Spurlock’s feeding frenzy may have already dented the Golden Arches to an impressive degree—watching the film, you can easily imagine the panicked internal memos. McDonald’s is scrapping its Super Size option and introducing an adult Happy Meal that comes with a pedometer. Super Size Me has also inspired predictable attacks from free-market activists—in at least one case a counter-demonstration that “proves” weight can be lost while scarfing burgers.
Super Size Me sometimes exerts the gross-out fascination of reality TV’s muckier specimens—its arc suggests a slow-motion Fear Factor, or Extreme Makeover in reverse. Indeed, Spurlock, whose affable-doofus persona is somewhere between Johnny Knoxville and Michael Moore, was responsible for MTV’s cash-for-stunts series I Bet You Will, and is preparing an SSM-modeled show called 30 Days. But none of this should detract from the importance of Super Size Me as a work of public health advocacy. Fighting grease with grease, it’s a film that has its severely taxed heart in the right place.