Over a 30-day period, the Manhattan-based filmmaker ate nothing but McDonald's, morning, noon and night, much to the horror of the doctors he enlisted to monitor his quickly declining health, the nutritionist who begged him to at least cut out the super-sized Cokes, and his vegan girlfriend.
Spurlock began his binge-with-a-message at a mean and lean 185 pounds on a strapping 6-foot, 2-inch frame. By the end of his pork-out, Spurlock was toting a bowling ball midsection of 25 extra pounds.
As might be expected, Spurlock's cholesterol spiked, his liver was reduced -- in one doctor's helpful analogy -- to foie gras, and he began to feel lethargic and depressed.
And Spurlock's woes are a nation's. Several health experts and lawyers interviewed in the film make the hard-to-argue point that unhealthier food, rising obesity and lack of exercise are to the 21st century what cigarette smoking was to the 20th century: grave, litigation-worthy issues.
Michael Moore's path-blazing indie doc Bowling for Columbine is the obvious inspiration for Super Size Me's personality-driven approach. But the film owes just as much to reality TV as it does the kind of social documentary pioneered by Frederick Wiseman or Barbara Kopple. (Spurlock previously helmed a reality show called "I Bet You Will" on MTV.)
Like Moore's shiny, happy, Sundance-friendly spin on dire content, Spurlock takes a light, jolly approach to heavy material. Catering to a mainstream desire to have bad news wrapped in fun packaging, Super Size Me sometimes feels like it's cut from the same superficial cultural cloth as its McTarget.
He's a likable enough guide to America's expanding waistline (and certainly an improvement over Moore's smug, holier-than-thouism), but over the course of the film, Spurlock's bright-eyed, bushy-tailed gluttony becomes taxing.
Like Moore, Spurlock doesn't seem to know when to quit. He devises several gimmicky, artificial anecdotes to prove America's Moonie-like obedience to the demonically grinning Rev. McDonald. Adorably dire moments show first-graders unable to identify a picture of Jesus Christ but genuflecting over a picture of the Ronald. Two middle-aged women keep botching the words to the "Pledge of Allegiance" but know all the words to the Big Mac commercial jingle.
Spurlock does better when he tempers the folksy vignettes with justified outrage. Especially disturbing is his visit to America's public school cafeterias, where greedy concessionaires sell candy, pizza and French fries in a grotesque, reprehensible semblance of a school lunch. At its best, Super Size Me documents the fast-food mentality that extends to the cars we drive, the news we watch, the lack of home-cooked meals and the passive acceptance of a Wal-Mart and Wendy's littered landscape. Low expectations and overweight Americans contribute to what one of Super Size's legion of expert witnesses (dietitians, a former surgeon general, academics and doctors) calls a "toxic culture."
But countless efforts to drive home McDonald's singular malfeasance become a kind of white noise after a while. The nearly relentless focus on McDonald's tends to vilify one corporation for the sins of a nation.
And Spurlock's endurance test soon becomes our own. After the 20th shot of Spurlock's engorged belly, a close-up of his stomach contents splattered on a McDonald's parking lot, and his humorless girlfriend's detailed discussion about the impact of Spurlock's diet on their sex life (which rivals the footage of stomach surgery for gory details), many may want to step off the thrill ride. It's not the calories making you sick, but that other modern overindulgence of too much information.