The food science/health documentary Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead makes the filmmaker-subject motif – in which the man behind the camera spends as much time in front of it – appear to be the norm. Not long ago, it was controversy. Back when Barbara Kopple made Harlan County, USA, about West Virginia coal miner strikes, her voice was heard during interviews, which nonfiction purists thought to be an intrusion. Today topical documentaries work in the post-Michael Moore/Spurlock milieu, in which the filmmaker is solidified as character. This headline-ready approach is expected; purely objective nonfiction, quaint – now more academic.
The filmmaker/character, Joe Cross, is an overweight member of Australia’s upper-middle-class. A overtaxing schedule leads him to rely on the convenient, fatty-sugary-salty diet, born in – and sold worldwide – by America. He decides to go on a juice-only diet, and during tours the home of the Big Mac and Whopper. If the premise doesn’t scream formula, his mostly forgettable interviews with random Americans will. Cross packages his diet as a populist product, rather ironic in that the unhealth lifestyle is also a marketable means for profit. (After all, Cross is an entrepreneur and investor.) Affable enough, he doesn’t find the traction to rise above the ordinary.
Sure enough, a call for help comes to Cross back in Australia – and a chance to elevated his project, a bit late but not too much. Phil’s journey to health, with the help of Cross, transforms a lacking showpiece into a powerful tale of will and mentorship. The result – now on DVD and available on Netflix streaming – is uneven, a reinforced latter end that makes the earlier seem all the more weak. But it saves the film and makes it worth the full run: if we skip past part one – about a journeyman who will become mentor – part two wouldn’t have the same power. Phil is as big a prize to Cross the filmmaker as Cross the coach was to his mentee.