The latest film from director Richard Linklater (A Scanner Darkly), Fast Food Nation, would seem to be another in a long line of important message pictures — think Super Size Me (2004), Lord of War (2005) or Crash (2005) — preaching to us about the evils of our culture. Instead of just stating the obvious (much like those aforementioned films) that fast food is bad for you, Linklater instead has his sights set a bit higher. The only problem is that his approach is never truly as effective as he thinks it is.
The movie is an attempt to dramatize Eric Schlosser’s popular nonfiction book of the same name. While Linklater’s approach — an obvious shot at making the material more digestible and mainstream, as opposed to a simple documentary — is a fine idea, in many ways it is a problem. By dramatizing the book, the film also fictionalizes it. While I seriously doubt that the facts behind the film were fabricated, giving the film a narrative structure creates a disconnect with the viewer, making it at least seem made-up. Little factual tidbits and statistics get thrown in here and there throughout the storyline, but usually only when higher profile actors are onscreen, like Bruce Willis and Ethan Hawke, because, obviously, Americans will listen to celebrities. I do not doubt the truth behind the information being given; I just don’t want to be told about deforestation by someone like pop star Avril Lavigne. And when this doesn’t work, the makers just show footage of cattle slaughter to shock you out of eating fast food.
The movie follows a few interconnected stories — from a marketing executive (Greg Kinnear) of the fictional Mickey’s fast-food chain investigating the source of cow manure in his company’s beef, to a group of illegal aliens that are working at a slaughterhouse for Mickey’s meat distributor, to a teenage employee (Ashley Johnson) at one of the franchises. It’s through these characters that Linklater and Schlosser are attempting to put forth the idea that our cultural fixation on fast food is creating societal problems all across the board. Not only is fast food the reason for illegal immigration, but, according to the makers, it also seems to create sexual harassment and meth labs. The approach is ambitious, since it is an attempt at making us view how routine — seemingly innocuous — things in our lives create larger problems, but the supposed concept that “fast food is the root of all evil” is just ridiculous. Throw in some ham-fisted symbolism comparing a herd of fenced-in cattle to the American public, and you’ve got your movie.
While numerous problems and issues are presented, no one ever gives any alternatives. The depicted sense of hopelessness is obviously supposed to evoke some sort of call to action for people to decide how to live their lives differently on their own. The movie, in this sense — as well as in narrative structure — resembles Syriana (2005), though Fast Food Nation lacks that film’s punch and exigency, and no one involved seems to realize that our dependency on fossil fuels is likely causing a few more problems in the world than the local McDonald’s. For some, this movie will be an important, relevant film. Others will be left asking to be told something they didn’t already know. Rated R for disturbing images, strong sexuality, language and drug content.
— reviewed by Justin Souther