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Mac Attack

Savvy documentary gorges on humor and horror

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It's been a long time since America has been able to look down and see its toes, which is why the obsession with dieting continues to reign as a favorite national pastime. Diet books routinely crack the bestseller list (the current chart-topping fad: The South Beach Diet), and even TIME magazine has devoted two recent cover stories in a six-week span to articles on healthy eating ("Low-Carb Nation" and "Overcoming Obesity In America"). Yet even with all this activity, America continues to outdistance all other countries as the world's most overweight nation. (Just a thought: Maybe turning all those pages doesn't burn as many calories as tackling the treadmill?)

The United States' status as a haven of overindulgence isn't exactly breaking news, which means that Morgan Spurlock's documentary Super Size Me isn't exactly cutting-edge fare. Spurlock, whose often ramshackle approach to nonfiction filmmaking should draw plenty of comparisons to Michael Moore, settled on a surefire gimmick for this picture: A fit young man, he decided to eat nothing but McDonald's food for a whole month, heading exclusively to the Golden Arches for his three squares a day. By the end of his experiment, he had gained roughly 25 pounds, witnessed his liver turn to "pate" (as described by one of his shell-shocked doctors) and his cholesterol go through the roof, generally become more sluggish (including in the bedroom, as his vegan girlfriend ruefully reveals)... and developed an insatiable craving for all the harmful ingredients that are packed into the Big Macs, French fries and Egg McMuffins that he consumed with reckless abandon.

I know: Stop the presses, right? But despite the obviousness of its conclusions, this is nevertheless an outrageously entertaining film that presents its material in such a compelling manner that we often feel like we're hearing its nuggets (McNuggets?) of information for the first time. Spurlock, who's arguably even more of a camera hog than Moore, spends plenty of time documenting all aspects of his experiment -- "Hey, see me puke on-camera! Hey, watch me find a hair in my sundae!" -- yet he's also conscientious enough to conduct some investigative reporting on the side, talking with health advocates across the country (and attempting to talk with the top brass at McDonald's, who predictably don't make much of an effort to return his calls) and exploring the reasons why the fast food industry has become such an integral ingredient in the American lifestyle. Spurlock takes us inside (literally) the surgery of a man who's having his stomach reduced in a last-ditch effort to save his own life, and he's even willing to muddy the health-conscious waters by introducing us to an average-sized man who has eaten at McDonald's every day for decades -- with no discernible ill effects.

Super Size Me is a movie filled with big laughs, many courtesy of the warped, anti-McDonald's artwork created by Ron English (you can see more of his deliciously demented jabs at pop culture icons at www.popaganda.com). Yet even the guffaws don't diminish the periodic bouts of anger, depression and horror we personally experience as we watch a nation eating itself into oblivion. And the most terrifying part of the picture is the effect of this accepted eating disorder on the children -- a segment demonstrating how school cafeterias have been hijacked by money-grubbing corporations who have no problem providing them with harmful, inferior food products should lead to plenty of concerned parents furiously writing to their elected officials.

Super Size Me opens with an image that immediately establishes an unsettling tone -- scores of small children repeatedly chanting a melodious mantra that telegraphs their undying devotion to "McDonald's! McDonald's! Kentucky Fried Chicken and a Pizza Hut!" It's like a scene from Village of the Damned writ large, super-sized to consume an entire nation.

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