Some may say Michael Moore holds the title of the documentarian whose films most successfully blend politics and activism with humor and sheer entertainment value. But my vote for the filmmaker that most consistently does this is Morgan Spurlock, who broke through with his 2004 Oscar-nominated takedown of the fast-food industry, Super Size Me, and has tackled a variety of subjects (admittedly, some more hard hitting than others) in the 15 years since. Clearly Spurlock believes that movie had an impact on the fast-food world, because shortly after it was released, most chains began to emphasize their healthier menu items or at least discovered a long list of buzz words and phrases that make it sound like they have such options.
Deciding to do a follow-up to his debut feature, Spurlock now has Super Size Me 2: Holy Chicken!, which looks at the changes—or perceived changes—that fast-food giants have made in recent years to make consumers feel better about making horrible choices in their eating habits. Rather than simply do a retread of his findings from the first film, here Spurlock investigates the single most popular fast-food menu item, chicken, by opening his own restaurant that only serves variations on chicken-based meals and using the opportunity to be as transparent and healthy as he possibly can while still opening up a business that he plans on keeping open and possibly even franchising.
While the filmmaker goes through the surprisingly difficult process of buying his own chickens, finding a place to raise them, arranging to make his restaurant the only farm-to-table fast-food joint in operation, and eventually finding a location (which ends up being in Ohio), not surprisingly, he meets resistance at almost every step thanks to “big chicken”—the handful of massive chicken corporations, including Tyson and Perdue—trying to block certain aspects of his new operation. But along the way, he also skillfully inserts more personal stories about generations-old family chicken farms that are being cheated out of large sums of money by these corporations as part of routine business, while also diving in to just how useless the USDA truly is and how a battery of healthy buzz words have no real meaning either.
Spurlock debunks or clears up the definitions of claims like “free-range,” “all-natural,” “organic,” “cage/stress-free,” and even “hormone-free,” which is a useless term since using hormones in chicken is 100 percent illegal. He also tours various fast-food chains to look at how they are attempting to redesign their layouts to make it look like healthy food is contained within, such as a great deal of wood to resemble a barn, signs loaded with the color green, relabeling fried food as “crispy,” or “sandwiching” images of unhealthy food between photos of salads—these tricks are referred to as a “health halo.” It’s likely you’ll never see another advertisement for a fast-food restaurant or walk into another one the same way after watching this movie.
Super Size Me 2 leads up to the grand opening of Spurlock’s restaurant, and I won’t ruin the surprises that await the customers who walk in the doors (outside of what appears to be some very tasty sandwiches and “locally sourced water,” aka tap water). The contents and promise of Spurlock’s restaurant might be one of the highlights of any of his films, and it shows what a masterful satirist he’s turned into in 15 years. He keeps us laughing while also being mildly terrified of the way big food industries run aspects of our lives in ways that we are blissfully unaware of, while delivering foods that are patently not any healthier than they were when he made Super Size Me. There have been deeper-dive versions of this story out there in recent years, but Spurlock wants us to enjoy the process of learning and maybe even admit that we’re part of the problem by not being better consumers, or at least because we all know that fried chicken tastes way better than grilled.
The film opens today for a two-week run at the Gene Siskel Film Center.
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