The concept behind The Greatest Movie Ever Sold is a big one, large enough that it takes the entire movie to fulfill it. Morgan Spurlock sets out to fund his movie about product placement, plotted as a kind of postmodern exercise in calculated selling out, entirely through product placement, turning the entire film into the story of its own creation. It’s a brilliant device, one that opens inroads for a thorough examination of Hollywood’s relationship with advertising, potential ultimately stunted by the fact that Spurlock is less interested in pursuing it than congratulating himself for having come up with this idea.
This isn’t to say The Greatest Movie Ever Sold doesn’t commit to the task at hand. It’s more that Spurlock does so glibly, armed with a knowing grin, always with one eye toward the camera. Potentially fascinating subjects, like a tyrannical dealer of props with an undue amount of creative control, are dropped almost instantly, part of a laziness that contributes to an underdone 85 minutes. Flubs like this serve as reminders that Spurlock isn’t a journalist or even really a documentarian as much as a showman who latches himself onto big ideas. His work has always been disconcertingly shallow: Super Size Me was less a high-minded social crusade than a sleazily masochist challenge, and Where in the World Is Osama bin Laden? used its idea not as a launching pad for exploration, but as an end unto itself. As with Michael Moore, careful exploration of his ideas and claims always comes second to the reminder that he’s the one behind them.
Some interesting facts do manage to be picked up along the way, in keeping with the film’s breezy, mildly educational tone. We learn about a cash-strapped Florida school that has turned every possible surface into potential ad space, from the fence outside to the interior of school buses. Yet brief interviews with corporate heads and advertising executives are frustratingly jokey and end up provoking more questions than they answer. Spurlock hammers in the idea that we’re blanketed by advertising, an obvious fact for anyone with eyes but no clue as to how this happened or what that means.
The director clearly hints at his personal sentiments on a trip to São Paulo, a city that has banned outdoor advertising altogether. The place is posited as kind of reclaimed paradise, a chance for overexerted eyes to relax and enjoy real beauty, a conclusion that ignores how its rows of blank buildings also look dingy and boring. The Greatest Movie Ever Sold ends with the face-saving reminder that none of its many corporate partners had control over the final product, cold comfort in a movie already bound by its own self-imposed limits.