It's a genius little gimmick, really: a clever, knowing twist that isn't so obnoxiously meta as to be off-putting.
Morgan Spurlock made a documentary about product placement, marketing and advertising, and he funded it entirely through product placement, marketing and advertising - starting with the title. And so it isn't just: "The Greatest Movie Ever Sold." It's: "POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold."
Now, you may not necessarily walk out of the theater craving pomegranate juice - or itching to book a flight on JetBlue Airways, or nibble on some Amy's Kitchen pizza, or drive a Mini Cooper (or fill up that Mini Cooper at a Sheetz convenience store). And those are just a few of the two dozen or so sponsors Spurlock amassed, despite enduring many, many more rejections. (The ones that shot him down also get shout-outs, but probably not in the way they would have liked, which is one of many causes for laughter here.)
But while Spurlock's film is hugely entertaining, unsurprising coming from the likable maker and star of "Super Size Me" and "Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden?," Spurlock also doesn't connect the dots sufficiently enough to prove that product placement actually influences consumer habits.
Still, he has fun trying, even going so far as to insert affectionately over-the-top ads for some of the brands that are sponsoring him; the ones for Hyatt Hotels and Mane 'n Tail hair products - which are good for both humans and horses - are especially amusing. And he does shine a light on a trend that's only getting more prevalent, and more shameless.
The average viewer probably doesn't know, for example, about the kind of wrangling that goes on behind the scenes to get those products into movies - that strong-arming can occur during shooting to ensure that you see a certain brand of soda at just the right time. "Rush Hour" director Brett Ratner, one of many filmmakers who add their insight, phrases it well: "Artistic integrity? Whatever." But he also explains that if saying yes to product placement means that you get the kind of money you need to make the kind of movie you envision ... well, then it's a win-win. This is, after all, a business.
Spurlock also aims to achieve transparency by including footage from the pitch meetings with various companies - so we know how much Ban deodorant paid to be involved in his movie, for example. And when the owner of Sheetz asks, "Is there a plot?" Spurlock doesn't miss a beat in responding, "This is the movie right now." Of course, they're in on the joke, too.
Thankfully, Ralph Nader also shows up to serve as the voice of reason. He figures that the only place to escape the onslaught of advertising is during sleep - but he also finds himself engaged with Spurlock in a discussion of Merrell shoes, which the director just happens to be wearing during his interview with Nader.
Just by being himself, Spurlock is a big reason "The Greatest Movie Ever Sold" is so enjoyable, and his presence is powerful enough to make you overlook the film's shortcomings. (A visit to Florida, where cash-strapped public schools have given into advertising, feels like an unfocused detour.) Unlike Michael Moore, who inserts himself front and center in his documentaries to stridently prove his points, Spurlock's folksy affability creates the sensation that he's truly going on a journey, that he doesn't necessarily know all the answers to the questions he's posing, and he'd like nothing more for us than to go along for the ride.
As long as that ride is in a Mini Cooper, of course, and not a Volkswagen.
"POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold"
The Sony Pictures Classics release is rated PG-13 for some language and sexual material. Running time: 88 minutes.