At the world premiere of Morgan Spurlock’s latest documentary—a sequel to Super Size Me, the film that put him on the map—Spurlock dialed the PR knob to 11 by providing the audience with a free meal from his new restaurant venture “Holy Chicken.”
The food truck outside of the venue served fried chicken sandwiches that looked somewhat grotesque and felt slimy to the touch. There were side choices that included fried green beans, which the charming young woman behind the counter referred to affectionately as simply “greens.” They offered soda and water (the water was dubbed “Holy Water,” perhaps because it was the closest thing to a healthy option on the menu).
Why would the man who injured his body by eating McDonald’s for 30 days straight decide to open a fast food chain? Could it be a statement on the slippery nature of food marketing in America? An expose on the corrupt nature of “Big Chicken?” Or an attempt by Spurlock to resurface to the shores of pop culture relevance after not having a truly successful documentary film in 12 years.
It is a little from every column, but the latter seems to take prominence, as nothing factual can quell the impeding personality of Spurlock.
Spurlock has always struggled to make his films about anything other than himself. He always seems to be winking at the audience with a cheeky grin, as if to say “isn’t it crazy that I’m putting myself in this situation?”
For the first Super Size Me this schema worked because Spurlock made himself a test subject (in a non-scientific experiment, but it worked for his thesis statement). In the sequel, Spurlock tries to shift the focus to the corporations and how they manipulate us into paying for garbage food despite a culture that puts so much emphasis on health.
This is a worthwhile aim for a documentary. But the film cannot help but focus more on Spurlock and his ethically confused business venture than on the facts of the problem.
There are facts in the film, certainly. Not to mention semantic marketing schemes that are undoubtedly intriguing. One segment of the film unpacks exactly what certain choice phrases on food packaging actually mean. For something to be “All Natural” it need only contain no artificial ingredients (which no chicken product ever does). For chicken products “No Hormones Added” is essentially meaningless, for it is illegal (and ultimately unnecessary, as the film shows) to add hormones to chickens.
This look at the marketing monster and “health halos” of food product marketing is the most illuminating information in the film. As the culture becomes more health-focused, food corporations adapt to the shifting tide not be making their foods healthier, but by changing the buzz words that come with the same old junk.
In the case of fast food, this often means dressing up the production design of the store to give off a cleaner, more eco-friendly vibe, as well as adding healthy options to the menu with full knowledge that nobody is really buying those options.
Essentially, these businesses are working under the framework that health is a consumer perception, one that can be quite easily manipulated. For Spurlock, he takes this manipulation to the next level. He starts a fast food chicken joint from the ground up, looking for the best way to fool his customers.
He makes “fried grilled” chicken sandwiches, painting fake grill marks on the finished product to make it appear as if it was on a grill. He also garnishes the sandwich with a handful of mixed vegetables to make the consumer think that they are eating something with healthy ingredients in it.
While Holy Chicken serves this fast food slop (those aforementioned green beans taste more like mushy french fries than any sort of vegetable), Spurlock attempts to teach his consumers about the ills of the fast food business model.
If this sounds counter-intuitive, that’s because it is the epitome of the word. At the end of the film, title cards explain that business firms have offered to franchise Holy Chicken nationwide, a statement that is meant to be condemning and tongue-in-cheek. However, this really just shows where Holy Chicken is doing more harm than good by simply becoming part of the competition.
The last act of the film depicts the grand opening of the restaurant. People eat the food and read the packaging, which let the consumer know how exactly they are being tricked into thinking the food is healthy. Most of the customers laugh at it and continue eating the food regardless.
How is this fixing a problem, then? Is the joke on “Big Chicken” or the consumers? A chicken farmer lost his job helping Spurlock achieve his fast food goal; was he a martyr for a worthy cause?
It is hard to say. The ethics of Spurlock’s new doc are muddy. While there are some sequences that provide genuine informational content that are seemingly backed up by fact, many of the sequences feature Spurlock becoming part of the marketing train, putting his face ironically front and center for audiences to giggle at.
All this to tell us yet again that fast food is unhealthy. As if we didn’t already know.
Super Size Me 2: Holy Chicken: C-
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)