Bad Taste

Fast Food Nation goes down easy, but has no nutritional value

Josh Bell

The film uses Schlosser's book merely as a guide to tell a fictional story, which is an iffy proposition but one with potential. Movies are often able to ground political points in emotional truths that reach audiences more readily and powerfully than statistics and talking heads, but the only point that Fast Food Nation the film ends up getting across is that it would have worked much better as a documentary. With nonfiction filmmaking enjoying such a creative and popular renaissance, there's no reason that Schlosser's book couldn't have become a documentary every bit as engaging and entertaining as any fiction film.

You See What's Behind All This

Three questions with Fast Food Nation director Richard Linklater

Were you concerned about being able to convey everything in the book in the fiction format?

Not really, because once you put the nonfiction part behind you, I was mainly concerned with telling a story about these characters, these workers. I've been trying to get that movie made for a long time in different forms and fashions. I had been interested in this subject for a long time, but I also had an interest in making a film about adult workers. Mainly we just took it from a character point of view.

What do you hope that people take away from the movie?

Well, I hope they care about the characters. I hope that they experience in a way this world that they're not supposed to know exists, and if they do know it exists, they're not supposed to care about it. Film can do that. You can actually kind of vicariously live in someone else's shoes there for 100 minutes. Even though the film's fictional, it's very realistic and truthful, so you can actually in a way see the truth of what's behind all this. So I think that's one thing. It doesn't tie it up in a bow and tell you what to think, or give you a 12-step program or a PowerPoint thing about what to do. It's up to each of us at a consumer level. If I have any hope, I think it's at a consumer level that demand can change. I think that's the only thing the system is designed to respond to. Governments don't really regulate it; they don't regulate themselves. They only really respond to consumer demand.

Does fictionalizing the story, especially making the main company a fictional chain, create a distancing effect that makes it easier for people to dismiss the message?

I don't know. I think everybody who sees it will see it as pretty real, because we're not doing it as a satire. It's not like a joke or anything like that. It's treated in a very realistic way. I think people understand you can't—Burger King and McDonald's aren't going to let you film there and use them. We just created our own fictional line that seems pretty realistic. It's not a parody of a fast food place. It seems like a real place.

Josh Bell

Instead, we get this mess of a movie, which marries Schlosser's research to Linklater's storytelling and comes up short on both counts. Like Traffic or Syriana or Crash, all of which used multiple, interlocking narrative threads to paint broad pictures of social issues, Nation follows a variety of characters who represent different levels of the fast food chain: At the top, there's Don Anderson (Greg Kinnear), a recently hired executive at McDonald's-like fast food chain Mickey's, who's sent by his bosses to a small Colorado town that's home to the meatpacking plant that supplies his company with all of its burgers. The suits are concerned that the supplier is allowing animal feces to taint the meat—a concern that turns out to be entirely well-founded.

At the retail level is high-schooler Amber (Ashley Johnson), who works the counter of the local Mickey's in the same Colorado town and eventually falls in with some college activists who open her eyes to the chain's reprehensible marketing and production practices—practices that rely largely on the cheap and disposable labor of illegal immigrants, represented by young newlyweds Raul (Wilmer Valderrama) and Sylvia (Catalina Sandino Moreno).

The characters drift in and out of each others' stories and encounter other representatives of different aspects of fast-food culture, none of whom ever feel like real people. Linklater introduces various plot elements only to drop them seemingly at random, and nothing is resolved, either emotionally or logically, by the end of the film. Kinnear's Don just sort of drifts off after the first hour and doesn't show up again until the very end. Vague allusions are made to actions and plans that never come to fruition, nor are even mentioned again.

Linklater also isn't able to make a convincing case against fast food and back it up with compelling arguments. The main characters never exhibit any real points of view, and the lesser characters who do (especially Ethan Hawke as Amber's uncle, a walking anticapitalist pamphlet) deliver their speeches in inelegant chunks. And Linklater reaches too far, placing the blame for problems like illegal immigration and suburban sprawl all onto fast food. Saddest of all for the film, the character who comes off as most convincing is Bruce Willis' straight-talking company man, the only unabashedly pro-fast-food presence in the entire film.

Unlike similar multipart narratives, which tend to build each individual thread to its own climax, Nation is directionless and structurally inert. Its efforts to be evenhanded politically, while admirable, also render it weak and ineffective at imparting anything more than the most rudimentary of messages, and by the time the story simply peters out, the film ends up as satisfying as a meal at Mickey's.

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