Fast Food Nation (United States, 2006)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

The idea underlying Fast Food Nation is intriguing: take the premise of the best-selling non-fiction book by Eric Schlosser and convert it into the backstory of a fictional film. Where director Richard Linklater runs into trouble is in the execution stage. The narrative he has fashioned is not only unfocused and rambling, but presents thinly developed characters that have little life or screen presence. The only interesting elements of Fast Food Nation are when it offers insight into the fast food process from slaughter house to Styrofoam container. This argues that the movie might have worked better had the ensemble cast been dumped and the project re-imagined as a documentary.

Fast Food Nation was probably greenlighted because of the success of Morgan Spurlock's Super Size Me, the diary of the maverick filmmaker who tortured himself by eating only fast food for a month. While there are aspects of Fast Food Nation that amplify points made by Spurlock - the movie's climactic sequence on the "kill floor" of a meat packing plant is a guaranteed appetite suppressant - the movie as a whole fails to make sufficient hard points; Linklater becomes overly enamored with his large group of one-dimensional characters. One leaves the theater certain what Linklater's theme was but uncertain why it was presented so ineffectively.

The story touches on the lives of various individuals who interact with the fast food system at different stages of the chain. Don Henderson (Greg Kinnear) is the marketing expert at Mickey's fast food restaurant who has masterminded the "Big One" hamburger. When traces of fecal matter appear in burger meat, he travels to Cody, Colorado to investigate the meat packing plant where the Big Ones are processed. Conditions there are not good, as a group of illegal immigrants from Mexico learns. Sylvia (Catalina Sandino Moreno), Raul (Wilmer Valderrama), and Coco (Ana Claudia Talancon) arrive in Cody to work in the plant, but find circumstances to be less-than-ideal. Not only is it a dirty, gory business, but the effort is backbreaking and carelessness leads to life-threatening accidents. Meanwhile, in a local Mickey's joint, server Amber (Ashley Johnson) is having a crisis of conscience about whether to continue doing her job or quit and join a local group of eco-terrorists who want to strike a blow for the freedom of penned-up cattle.

On some level, perhaps Linklater is attempting to emulate one of Robert Altman's large ensemble dramas. If that's the case, he fails. Some of the most interesting characters in Fast Food Nation are the walk-ons - those who appear briefly then never show up again. These include Kris Kristofferson as a rancher, Ethan Hawke as Amber's philosophical uncle, and Bruce Willis as the guy who brokers the deal between the plant and Mickey's. The same point is hammered home repeatedly: "We all have to eat a little shit." (That's meant literally as well as figuratively.)

One of the great frustrations associated with Fast Food Nation is the way it drops subplots. Don, who's the main character for the first hour, vanishes after his conversation with the Bruce Willis character. He isn't seen again until the end credits. A planned store robbery by two Mickey's employees is hinted at then never developed. Coco is shown to be spiraling into drug addiction and involved with a manipulative lover (Bobby Cannavale) then, without explanation, she has put her life back together. Fast Food Nation is filled with maddening inconsistencies like these.

For a nation of fast food consumers, some of the information disseminated by Fast Food Nation is hard to swallow. Will a Big Mac look as appealing when you consider there's likely at least a small amount of fecal matter mixed in with the bits of gristle, bone, and tissue? Or that the patty may not have undergone the most careful treatment on its way from the freezer to the bun? Because Fast Food Nation is presented as fiction, it's easy to dismiss its most alarming claims as a screenwriter's fantasies. That's another danger of not sticking to the facts in an adaptation of a non-fiction book. Fast Food Nation doesn't sound the alarm as loudly as it should, and its means of presentation leaves much to be desired, but there's enough disturbing material here to make it worth a look, even if it's only to confirm buried suspicions that vegetarians might be on to something.

Fast Food Nation (United States, 2006)