Fast Food Nation
2006Director: Richard Linklater
Cast: Greg Kinnear, Catalina Sandino Moreno, Ashley Johnson
espite its non-fiction source material and politically-charged poster (complete with biting tagline “Do you want lies with that?”), Richard Linklater’s latest is more an intimate character piece than it is a hard-hitting investigative journalism report. While there’s no question that the film has vital things to say, those things are scarcely about the fast food industry itself; instead, it uses the corporate machine as a vessel to connect the three interweaving story arcs it presents. The screenplay for Fast Food Nation was co-penned by the book’s author, Eric Schlosser, and Linklater, though, in the end, the movie is merely inspired by the best-seller. In a recent interview with Film Comment, Linklater admitted “Eric and I just decided we had to throw out the book altogether—but keep the name and atmosphere, and the focus on one town in Colorado.” It’s to be expected, then, that fans of the book’s deep-digging expose style would find the celluloid makeover to be a misfire. I, on the other hand, haven’t read it—and this may very well be part of why I was easily won over by the film.
Working through the three biggest employment links in the fast-food chain, we get (nearly equal) screen time from the Mexican immigrants working in the meat factory, the teens slinging burgers for unwitting customers, and, of course, the guy in a fancy suit coming up with new marketing ideas—who’s eventually sent off to figure out if, and why, there’s cow fecal matter making its way into the patties served at the fictional focal point, Mickey’s. Linklater rotates through each storyline (as well as each recognizable face: Greg Kinnear, Bruce Willis, Ethan Hawke, Patricia Arquette, Kris Kristofferson, and Avril Lavigne (!?)) with a deft hand, balancing tragedy with comedy and subtlety with the exaggerated. He has no trouble making his characters genuine and sympathetic. Whether following them through gruesome accidents, dashed hopes, or dispirited revelations, he never misses an emotional beat (with the exception of Kinnear’s character unwisely being dropped halfway into the film). The fantastically orchestrated finale—an extended montage of the meat factory’s kill floor, as numerous bovine are graphically slaughtered and their parts are sent one by one to their respective destinations—manages to be terrifying and heartbreaking, summing up everything these and countless other people have gone through, and will go through. It’s unquestionably one of the most disturbing scenes I’ve come across, draining yet ultimately rewarding to watch.
There are flaws here, though, and they’re not small. An ensemble drama (albeit with a heavy sociological edge) such as this, using fast food culture as its backdrop and offering moments of potent commentary on it, is by and large a good idea. It was a significantly bad idea, however, to base it on a book that’s anything but an ensemble drama. All this did was create false expectations for the film, which in some cases I’m sure, overshadowed what was really there, and what was really worth seeing here. Fast Food Nation does not want to hammer home any messages about how bad it is to eat beef; nor does it want to poke fun at McDonald’s, or the folks that eat there too often (pleasingly, the movie almost completely avoids showing us anything from the consumer’s perspective). It seems, in the end, all it wants to accomplish is an understanding of the inner workings in one of many seemingly evil nationwide franchises.
The problem is that’s such a fuzzy a concept. If I’m completely off-base here, and the intent was to demonize fast food and everything to do with it—well, then Linklater didn’t do so well in getting that across, either. Why? Because the film’s too weak a representation of that, and kill floor scene and all, it doesn’t have enough punch to shake the average person out of their burger-popping ways. For example, of the two people I saw this with, one was already a vegetarian, and the other seemed relatively unfazed (and unimpressed) by the film. Another lady (for argument’s sake, she was more than a little overweight, and probably knew the fast food circuit all too well) who we’d seen before going in—and again on the way out—stated that she “didn’t like it,” and “saw the effect it was trying to have, it just didn’t have that effect on me.” Now, this handful of people isn’t much to go on, granted, and while I personally won’t be touching beef for the next decade or so, I can see from an unbiased viewpoint that this just isn’t going to pound itself into the collective conscious the way the book seemed to. If you know that going in and can accept it, you’ll find there’s more than meets the eye in Fast Food Nation; it’s something that deserves to be seen fairly—as a movie in its own right, and a damn fine one, at that.
Fast Food Nation is playing in theatres across the country.
By: Teresa Nieman
Published on: 2006-11-27