Arriving in Greater Orlando at what looks like the tail end of its national press blitz, Super Size Me already runs the risk of feeling dated. Presumably cowed by the movie's assault on fast-food toxicity, the McDonald's chain has discontinued its more gargantuan menu items, shifting promotional muscle to its new Go Active! line of "health-conscious" adult Happy Meals. So the foe has been vanquished, right? The hard-fought battle won?
Only if you can ignore the myriad alarming factoids filmmaker Morgan Spurlock tosses out about the continuing threat of garbage-cuisine consumption. And though the attention that's been lavished on this human guinea pig might dupe you into thinking that you'd seen his movie before it even opened, you'll nonetheless be captivated by the deeper issues that cling tenaciously to its main storyline (like that weird, gristly stuff that's been known to collect on the edges of a Mickey D's meat patty).
The guiding concept has been advertised ad nauseam: As an experiment, the clean-living Spurlock ate nothing but McDonald's food for an entire month, patronizing golden-arched franchises across the country and letting the camera record the catastrophic effects to his physical and mental health. (At the same time, he reduced his level of exercise to the barest minimum.) A poor excuse for a scientist, Spurlock clearly expected a preordained result; chortling over the anticipated, dyspeptic outcome of his latest bout of power-wolfing, he's a biased enough commentator to make Michael Moore lower his baseball cap in shame. As for Spurlock's worried girlfriend, a vegan chef by trade well, she's so insufferably smug about her lifestyle that a sane viewer might happily sign up for a lifetime of McGriddles just to get away from her.
OK, it's slanted in the extreme. But nobody's pretending that this was anything but a setup job. Spurlock admits right off the bat that he was out to experience an extreme version of the average American's habits. And as the movie's damning interludes of nutritional information reveal, pronouncing a more conservative fast-food intake benign is like arguing that cutting yourself with a razor blade once is "healthier" than doing it seven times.
It helps that the film zips along like a bullet train, following Spurlock on his rendezvous with a fatty liver and spicing up the potentially repetitive narrative with impassioned mini-essays on the global consequences of processed foods. Clever touches abound: An interview with an expert in juvenile marketing is set inside a McDonald's playground, where the laughter of children ricochets off the walls. The recruitment of young customers is a big theme in Super Size Me, a parallel the movie draws between the fast-food and tobacco industries. How can the purveyors of drive-up-window detritus say that their customers are always free to decline, Spurlock challenges, when so much of the business depends on ignorance?
Yet in ways not even the filmmaker may recognize, the movie also shies away from the lawsuit-happy notion that the burger barons bear 100 percent responsibility for our incredible expanding populace. Guest speaker Jared Fogle (yes, the Subway guy) gets the best line when he tells an obese youngster, "The world's not going to change. You have to change." Look carefully at the scene in which Spurlock unwraps one of the first McMeals of his monthlong quest, poring over it in supposedly ironic admiration. Isn't that actually glee on his face the self-abusing pride well known to anybody who's ever chowed down on something he shouldn't have? At its most honest junctures, Super Size Me allows that the struggle to stay healthy will always be a battle within.