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“The Greatest Movie Ever Sold,” Reviewed

“The Greatest Movie Ever Sold,” Reviewed (photo)

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A version of this review originally appeared as part of our coverage of South by Southwest 2011.

How did we ever live before TiVo and DVR? I honestly don’t remember. I seem to vaguely recall talking to people more. It was horrible.

TiVo and DVR have given us the freedom to control our tevision experience: to record and save our favorite shows or fast-forward through the stuff we don’t want to watch. That freedom, though, is such a complicated thing. We certainly don’t need more marketing in our cluttered lives, but that marketing pays for most of the content on television and the Internet. And as TiVo and DVR have made commercials easier to avoid on television, people have become more resistant to traditional advertising in all cultural contexts. Again, not a terrible thing… except for the people who make their money by creating content for websites that make their money selling advertising. If you won’t look at the ads, the site can’t sell the ads. If they can’t sell the ads, then they can’t pay the writer. If they can’t pay the writer, the writer has to go work at one of the places that put their ad on the site in the first place.

These are the issues at the center of Morgan Spurlock’s ingenious documentary “The Greatest Movie Ever Sold.” In their attempts to circumvent audiences’ post-DVR distaste for commercials, companies have had to find new ways to market to consumers. One of the biggest ways they do it is product placement, the near-subliminal use of brands and products within movies and television shows in exchange for cash. Spurlock wanted to make a film about the rise of product placement but he, like most of us, couldn’t afford to do it without outside funding. So he recruited advertisers to fund his $1.5 million dollar movie about advertising. Hence, the full title of his film “POM Wonderful Presents the Greatest Movie Ever Sold.”

As he did in “Super Size Me,” Spurlock manages to turn a fairly dry issue into an entertaining and funny film by casting himself as its gregarious subject. His schtick is simple but effective: he enters into a high-concept premise with good intentions and limited knowledge, and learns through actions. What better way to understand marketing skullduggery than by becoming beholden to it yourself? As a filmmaker, Spurlock is kind of like Jeff Goldblum in “The Fly:” he’s got these amazing ideas, but to execute them he has to use himself as the test subject, and even if the experiment’s a success, there may be some unforeseen consequences. For instance, Spurlock doesn’t just have to recruit advertisers; he has to make them happy too. That means driving their cars on camera or pimping their shoes during interviews or even, in one case, agreeing not to disparage the entire country of Germany. Achtung!

Even while (POM Wonderful Presents) “The Greatest Movie Ever Sold” dramatizes Spurlock’s quest to fund his movie through sponsors, it repeatedly breaks from its own narrative to offer opposing viewpoints on advertising from cultural critics and intellectuals who caution about the dangers and impact of marketing on our brains, children, and quality of life. You really do get both sides: this movie has an official airline (JetBlue), and an interview with an anti-product placement advocate conducted in that airline’s flagship terminal.

Making a movie about product placement by recruiting advertisers is an inherently gimmicky premise. But when you strip away the comedy, and even the modern relevancy, you realize that Spurlock is speaking to one of the fundamental and eternal questions of cinema: the war between art and commerce. How far should a director be willing to go to make and promote his movie? Some of the most interesting scenes in the movie are the ones in which Spurlock discovers that compromising your art for the sake of commerce comes with its own set of compromises. He pitches POM a whole bunch of ideas for a commercial he has agreed to integrate into the film. His ideas are clever and funny, in keeping with the tone of the movie he’s making. POM execs reject them all and tell him what they want him to do instead. Selling out is one thing. Handing over the writing of your movie to a sponsor is another.

Despite the creative hurdles, Spurlock effectively straddles the line between selling out and poking fun at selling out. The secret, I think, is transparency. When someone on an evening soap opera calls out one of their friends for acting strange for drinking too much Dr. Pepper, there’s never any acknowledgement that you’re watching a commercial grafted atop a piece of entertainment. Spurlock is totally upfront about what products and companies support him and even tells us how much they’ve paid him in several instances. He doesn’t deny the moments where advertising has its perks, like free cars and drinks, but he’s not afraid to openly admit his reservations about what he’s doing, either. He’s self-aware in a field that’s typically defined by its complete lack of self-awareness.

Eventually, POM and Spurlock are able to agree on an idea for the commercial and, sure enough, it runs within the body of “The Greatest Movie Ever Sold.” There’s two other commercials during the course of the film too, for Hyatt and JetBlue, and it occurs to me that intramovie commercials of the kind Spurlock accidentally pioneers here could represent a new frontier for advertisers. Think about it: when you watch a movie in a theater, your attention is completely focused on the screen. You’re not distracted by the Internet or your phone (hopefully), and you can’t fast-forward. You’re the perfect, captive audience. But don’t worry. Even if intramovie commercials take off, you can still just wait for them to show up on cable and watch them on your DVR.



Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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GIFs via Giphy

Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”


IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?

Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!

Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.

Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 


IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.


New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…


IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon.

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number!

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time.

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by.


IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo.

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim.

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t?

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?”

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud.

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.


The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”


Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).



Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.


And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.