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Diet Another Day: Director Morgan Spurlock makes the ultimate sacrifice in 'Super Size Me.'

Lard of The Fries

Morgan Spurlock--slightly annoying, but a public benefactor--submits himself to McDonald's in 'Super Size Me'

By Richard von Busack

"Lay off 'em, you'll live longer."
--The Texas Weenie King (Robert Dudley) advising Claudette Colbert against his own hot dogs in Preston Sturges' 'The Palm Beach Story' (1941)

ASIDE FROM its unconscious New York chauvinism, aside from the fact that it's a documentary made by the kind of person who displays a fraternity paddle in a place of honor in his office, Morgan Spurlock's Super Size Me, the hit at the 47th San Francisco Film Festival, may turn out to be as important in its way as Upton Sinclair's The Jungle was in 1906.

Note how the methods of exposé have changed. Sinclair presumed that if we saw an innocent, hardworking family victimized by the meat-packing industry, a sense of national outrage would follow. The influential humorist Finley Peter Dunne claimed that reading The Jungle turned President Theodore Roosevelt into "a viggy-taryan." True of nor, under Sinclair's influence, Roosevelt and the Senate pushed for meat inspection and the creation of the FDA. Today's E. coli casualties and the hellish conditions in factory-farm slaughterhouses suggest, to our shame, that not much has changed.

Super Size Me doesn't deal with the Guatemalan slaughterhouse workers in the United States who get repetitive stress from knifing carcasses or who lose their fingernails from bacterial infections. Instead, Spurlock focuses on the effect on the consumer--namely Morgan Spurlock. His approach is raucous, comedic and cartoony; the documentary's theme song is "Fat-Bottomed Girls" by Queen.

Spurlock is a skinny party in his mid-20s, who, with his receding hair and biker mustache, looks a bit like underground filmmaker George Kuchar. To illuminate the subject of national obesity, he goes on an exclusively McDonald's diet for one month. Spurlock's point of departure was the lawsuit by two consumers who claimed that McDonald's ruined their health. Spurlock's stunt aimed to prove how ruinous to your health fast food really could be under the worst circumstances.

McDonald's has the highest market share of all fast-food operations, and Manhattan has the highest concentration of McD's in the country, with one outlet even embedded in a hospital. All these franchises are part of the campaign to bulk up orders of sodas and french fries. So Spurlock decided that during the course of the month, he would supersize whenever the cashier asked.

Although McDonald's was unavailable for comment--Spurlock's numerous calls weren't returned--the company did drop its "Super Size" campaign shortly after Spurlock won best director at Sundance. Coincidence? Even the company's attempt to serve more healthy food is, at last, a trap; the salads and yogurt parfaits are rife with hidden calories.

As we see, the results of this diet on Spurlock's heath are harrowing. He gains 25 pounds after devouring--it's estimated later--some 30 pounds of sugar. He hires a trio of doctors to monitor his health. His appalled physicians can't believe their eyes--his menschy internist, Daryl Isaacs, exclaims that the liver-ruining effect of all that fat and syrup is akin to Nicolas Cage's all-booze suicide plan in Leaving Las Vegas. Spurlock experiences lethargy, mood swings, a plummeting libido. Strangely, the director doesn't discuss the condition of his colon, an organ that, following exposure to fast food, can do more tricks than a circus chimp.

Between confessionals to the camera, Spurlock checks out approaches to school nutrition: organic home cooking in a Wisconsin remedial high school; the more common approach that some school cafeterias have taken of piping in burgers and sugar water. He also checks McDonald's time-tested method of hooking the kids early through exposure to Ronald McDonald. Diabolical, but you're never too young to learn that clowns are not to be trusted.

I worked at McDonald's for six months and still eat there sometimes, even though I know better. I'm delighted to see the racket exposed. But when Spurlock scores "The Blue Danube" to the stomach-stapling operation of one Bruce Howlett, it's a mark of the director's insensitivity. Spurlock and his production company, The Con, used to have an Internet prank show called I Bet You Will, which lured victims into doing disgusting things for money. It is possible that Spurlock didn't make this film for his health, or the nation's health, so much as for his visceral reaction to being grossed out by fat people.

While Spurlock includes interviews with former Surgeon General David Satcher and nutritionist John Robbins---the turncoat Baskin-Robbins heir--he missed a few spots. He could have touched on the matter of the artery-bursting corn syrups and hydrogenated palm oils discussed in Greg Critser's teachy but preachy exposé Fat Land. Whatever his methods, there is no question but that Spurlock has performed a real act of public service. It's up to us to do the rest.

Super Size Me (Unrated; 98 min.), a documentary by Morgan Spurlock, opens Friday.

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From the May 5-11, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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