Judge Brett Cullum wonders what Jules would think of these burgers. You think a pig is filthy?
Jack Deavers: There's shit in the meat.
I had high expectations for Fast Food Nation, because the book changed my life. When I put down Eric Schlosser's nonfiction look at the fast food industry, I swore off McDonald's and other quick-fix, junk-food chains that dot the American landscape. To date I have never looked back at any food that starts with the "Mc" prefix, and remain staunchly opposed to the industry for many of the reasons Schlosser criticized it for. Some critics consider Fast Food Nation as revolutionary as The Jungle, Upton Sinclair's turn-of-the-century, muckraking look at meat and the people who produce it. Chapter after chapter, Fast Food Nation illuminated the practices of fast food chains from conception product preparation. Schlosser's effort is funny, sad, enlightening, and completely stomach churning. It is an impassioned look at the history of fast food in America, the sins of the industry, and the impact on our culture and economy. I encourage everyone I know to read it; it is an amazing revelation about food and big industry producing a hellish union. A couple of years later I heard Richard Linklater (the director of dialogue-heavy, stoner classics such as Slacker, Dazed and Confused, and Waking Life) would adapt Fast Food Nation for the big screen. How the heck would that ever work?
Fast Food Nation is charming in an roundabout way, but it's a completely different experience from the book; a strangely dispassionate one that shows little and says nothing clearly. The movie is far easier to swallow than the printed incarnation, and it purposefully packs less punch. Linklater worked with Schlosser to develop the screenplay which fictionalizes a mountain of real research. They created a dark comedy with a scathing view of society hidden under a mountain of dialogue. Amazingly, the material becomes a typical Linklater film, one which could sit easily next to SubUrbia on a double feature bill at a slacker cinema festival. The star-studded ensemble cast talks endlessly about fast food and meat, but we never see anything for ourselves until the last few moments. It's as if a group of college kids got really stoned, and imagined what the people in the book would talk about in their free time. The approach works in a strange way, but it doesn't seem related to the book. Where's the ire?
The large ensemble of characters is linked by fast food. There's Don Anderson (Greg Kinnear, Little Miss Sunshine), a marketing executive for a fictional burger chain named Mickey's. He's sent by his boss to check out the meat supplier of the restaurant's new sandwich "The Big One" because lab tests show alarming amounts of fecal matter in the patties. Working at the meat plant are several recent illegal Mexican immigrants including Raul (Wilmer Valderrama, That '70s Show) and Sylvia (Catalina Sandino Moreno, Maria Full of Grace). They work in substandard unsafe conditions rendering ground beef from the worst parts of cattle. Also in the mix is a bright teen named Amber (Ashley Johnson) who is beginning to feel guilty for working behind the counter of a corporate chain that exploits people and animals. Swirling around the core characters are numerous celebrity cameos including Kris Kristoferson, Bruce Willis, Avril Lavigne, Luis Guzmon, Patricia Arquette, and Linklater's male muse Ethan Hawke.
The film plods along without plot or purpose other than the revelation that "fast food sucks!" People who read the book are going to wonder where any of this came from other than a shout out here and there, and those who skipped Schlosser's treatise will just scratch their heads wondering what the point is. The film builds to a predictable climax which takes us deep into the slaughterhouse. Though the concept of taking nonfiction and creating a fictional movie from it is daring, you pine for the straight old-fashioned, documentary approach. Linklater has trivialized the material with his own style of hip conversations about next to nothing. Where is the outrage of the book, where Schlosser took out both barrels and aimed them squarely at the Golden Arches? Here, the only message I can take away is "We all have to eat a little shit." Unfortunately, that applies literally and metaphorically.
Fortunately, the cast is impressive. Wilmer Valderrama surprised me by completely shedding his "Fez" image or any trace of comedy. Greg Kinnear pulls off his role with simple charm. Ashley Johnson plays a teen we can actually like without any pathos or complications. The leads do a good job, and the celebrity cameos make the movie even more interesting. Kris Kristoferson and Bruce Willis steal their respective scenes. Hell, even pop rocker Avril Lavigne participates in the mellow vibe of Linklater's set. I don't know if a protest movie against burger chains is the right place to deliver natural, calm acting, but they capably handle the meandering dialogue. Great character work surpasses the film's fumbling of its main theme.
The DVD treatment from Fox is fine and dandy, like a Happy Meal with some nice prizes after the generic main course. The transfer is dark and murky. Colors are way off from real life, yet this may be a style choice by Linklater. The movie is blanched of color, drained and sterile. I remember this effect in the theaters. Fast Food Nation looks like it's from the '70s. The underused surround sound mix creates ambient moos when the protagonists are surrounded by cows.
Front and center in a nice extras package is a commentary by Linklater and book's author Schlosser, who explain the project and their approach. There's a making-of featurette and several flash animation cartoons that look closely and critically at meat production. The extras turn the experience into a well-rounded meal.
Fast Food Nation is a daring screen-adaptation experiment that combines raw facts with Richard Linklater's meandering, slacker style. It doesn't bring out the admirable aspects of the source material, and it misses the mark as an indictment of burgers, fries, and shakes. Unfortunately, the anger of Morgan Spurlock's Super Size Me captures the spirit of the Schlosser book even better than this bizarre film treatment. Fans of Linklater may find some consolation in a star-studded cast that convincingly delivers his rambling missives. It's like the burgers the film is chastising. There's a little shit with a go-nowhere plot, but if you eat it you might be satisfied for a bit. It's all nowhere near as interesting as the book, and any passion is completely drained. A war cry has been turned into a stoned slow burn. Bummer, dude.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary From Director Richard Linklater and Writer Eric Schlosser
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