- - Thursday, April 21, 2011

With “POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold,” Morgan Spurlock, the documentary filmmaker who brought us “Supersize Me,” serves up yet another tasty yet nutritional treat: a documentary about product placement, financed entirely with product placement. It sounds like a self-promoting gimmick — and it is, in a way — but Mr. Spurlock’s execution is nearly flawless, and what begins as a benign stunt quickly deepens into a commentary of considerable consequence.

The film begins with Mr. Spurlock pitching his idea to any corporation that will listen: clothing lines, car companies — even Ban deodorant. After a lot of hilarious salesmanship, Mr. Spurlock eventually scores $1.5 million in corporate financing as well as a fleet of Mini Coopers (among other freebies) that he can only fill up at Sheetz — the documentary’s official gas-station chain. Mr. Spurlock even adds “POM Wonderful Presents” to the movie’s title after cutting a deal with the chic juice manufacturer POM Wonderful, whose pomegranate juice also becomes the movie’s official beverage. (Its iconic double-bulb bottle can be spotted in almost every scene.) Every aspect of the film was for sale: Sponsors were encouraged to purchase full-length advertisements, which appear sporadically throughout the documentary.

But it’s only after reviewing the terms of his multifarious sponsorships that Mr. Spurlock realizes the full price of “selling out.” His contractual restrictions range from a requirement to stay exclusively at Hyatt hotels to a prohibition against saying anything disparaging about Germany: Does this mean Mr. Spurlock is surrendering artistic control of his documentary?

Mr. Spurlock interviews movie directors, television producers, musicians and even Ralph Nader during his personal quest to understand the challenges of maintaining artistic integrity in an age when corporate money has seeped into every crevice of our culture. He even travels to the city of Sao Paulo, Brazil, which bans all outdoor advertisements — a pilgrimage that supplies telling contrast with Mr. Spurlock’s visits to the mecca of garish commercial signage, Times Square.

But Mr. Spurlock saves his most unsettling stunt for last. For a modest price, he is able to purchase ads for his film from a cash-strapped public school system in Florida, which sells advertising space on its school buses and other properties. And it’s incredibly painful when one of the school officials nonchalantly comments that her “school is for sale.” It forces on us the same question Mr. Spurlock struggles with throughout the film: What isn’t for sale? Or maybe: What shouldn’t be?

Mr. Spurlock’s closing anecdote feels misplaced and anticlimactic, but don’t let that deter you: “The Greatest Movie Ever Sold” is a highly entertaining, provocative triumph.

★★★½

TITLE: “POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold”

CREDITS: Directed by Morgan Spurlock; written by Mr. Spurlock and Jeremy Chilnick

RATING: PG-13, for occasional profanity and sexual innuendo

RUNNING TIME: 90 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS