The Reeler

Reviews

November 17, 2006

Fast Food Nation

Linklater's adaptation of the famous exposé succumbs to its own earnestness

Al Gore seemed to accomplish the impossible this year with An Inconvenient Truth: The filmed version of his actual lecture managed to come across as something other than… a lecture. More riveting than most of its fictional, winter doldrums competitors, Gore's film was a moderate success at the box office but a real triumph as an adaptation of the ostensibly dry-as-the-Aral-Sea talk he had been giving around the world for years.

What, then, to make of director Richard Linklater's attempt to adapt Fast Food Nation -- Eric Schlosser's non-fiction exposé of Big Burger economics and a culture of consumption literally about to burst at the seams -- into a fiction film? How is it possible that in dramatizing the anecdotes and vignettes presented in Schlosser's damning and highly entertaining book, and with the advantage of a very solid cast, including Greg Kinnear, Patricia Arquette and Bobby Cannavale, what results is essentially another lecture -- and a fairly banal one at that? Party-poopers said that the people who would shell out to see Gore's film were not the ones who needed to see it anyway, and perhaps that is the difference that the presence of Wilmer Valderrama and Ethan Hawke, a catchy title and Linklater's cachet will make with Fast Food Nation. It's a shame, then, that film is as priggish, poorly constructed and plug earnest as it is.

You'd be hard-pressed to find someone, in 2006, who has no clue that we like our burgers, milkshakes and hotel porn; that fast food is bad for you; that corporations will overlook anything but the bottom line; that migrant workers present an economic conundrum that no one seems interested in solving; and that, well, hamburgers are made from real live cows, and its not like eggs, people: At some point the cow actually has to die. Linklater presents each of the above as disconcerting revelations, and in that sense the film feels at least 15 years past its prime (except for the cow thing; haven't we always been clear on that?).

A handful of stories are threaded together by that of a laughably naïve marketing executive (Greg Kinnear wielding his big blue eyes, watery and wide) at Mickey's, a McDonald's knock-off, who is sent to a meat-packing plant in Cody, Colo., to figure out why the company's burger patties are basically full of shit. Instead of rousing the feeling that we're all in this systemic mess together -- imagine Chaplin getting mixed up in these modern times, for instance -- and what might we do about it, Linklater presents us with America: land of the glaring metaphor, an approach which culminates in what my friend Whitney insists is the most heavy-handed metaphor ever committed to film -- a scene involving, among other things, Avril Lavigne, her impressive hair extensions and some clueless cows who won't budge an inch because "they have all they need."

Revolution, you see, is for the young, and an idealistic Mickey's employee named Amber (played with preternatural warmth by Ashley Johnson) is the only one who actually takes action in Fast Food Nation, quitting her job and joining the local teens-in-turtlenecks chapter for some tiresome coffee table proselytizing. You can't expect resistance from the Mexicans (one of whom is Maria Full of Grace's embodiment of empathy, Catalina Sandino Moreno) risking their lives to get here -- they need the money too badly, and they'll take drugs and fuck the boss to cope with the honor of pulling kidneys out of cows for $80 a day. Nor can you can't expect the marketing guy to put his copious amounts of money where his mouth is; indeed, in perhaps the film's biggest misstep, Kinnear's storyline is unceremoniously dropped after former plant supervisor Bruce Willis tells him to stop asking questions and grow the fuck up.

The film's most believable scene features the unlikely combo of Arquette, who portrays Amber's blowsy mother, and her die-hard contrarian brother (played by Hawke) as the three engage in a lively, ass-slapping debate about activism and accountability. The injection of narrative life and freshness is all the more noticeable against its stale surroundings; Americans may not mind if their hamburger's mesquite flavor comes from a lab as long as it tastes good, and in critiquing the culture that makes up most of Fast Food Nation's prospective audience (though you know the French will eat it up), consulting the choirbook Linklater is preaching from might have made for a more palatable film.



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