Dir: Richard Linklater. US. 2006. 116mins.
The American Dream is full of shit but everyone stillwants a slice of it in Fast Food Nation,an uneven attempt to pick the dramatic meat from the bones of Eric Schlosser's2001 non-fiction bestseller. Following the multi-story template established by Traffic, it traces the food chain fromthe smug marketing executives in company board rooms to the vulnerable workerson the slaughterhouse floor and proves that the swiftest way to understandingthe soul of a nation is through the contents of its stomach.
Amusing and informative butalso hectoring and didactic, the wide-ranging film is not as tasty as one mighthave hoped and consequently will struggle to win hearts and minds. The provocativematerial, star cast and reputation of the book should be enough to stir solidspecialist box-office and the sense of despair over the state of modern Americacould add extra flavour in some European markets.
Opting not to translate thebook into a hard-hitting populist documentary in the mould of Bowling For Columbine, Schlosser and directorRichard Linklater wind up with something closer to the spirit of recent John Saylesefforts like Silver City.
Individual moments shine andsparkle but the film becomes harder to digest when characters start deliveringspeeches rather than having natural conversations and the humanity of the pieceis eroded by the need for one more sermon on the evils of the world. There isso much information and insight to try and squeeze into Fast Food Nation that it cannot help but lack the tightness andbullseye effectiveness of something like SuperSize Me.
In one significant strand ofthe story California marketing executive Don Henderson (Greg Kinnear) isdispatched to Colorado to investigate claims that the meat supply for Mickey'sBig One burgers has been contaminated with animal excrement. In a Frank Caprafilm he would be the wide-eyed innocent alerted to corruption in high placesand saving the day for the good of the common people. In our age, his eyes are openedto all the corner-cutting cynicism abroad in the fast food industry. He is tolda few home truths by old-time rancher Rudy (Kris Kristofferson) and yet hestays silent. He recognises that the system is rotten but will do nothing torock the boat or endanger the comfortable life that it has given him. You canimagine that he might just stop his own children eating the crap that hiscompany passes off as nourishment.
In the other major story, wefollows Sylvia (Catalina Sandino Moreno) and her boyfriend Raul (WilmerValderrama) as they leave Mexico, enter America illegally and wind up workingat the UMP meat packing plant where they share the status of the animals asfresh meat fit for the slaughter.
The film also alights onsingle mother Cindy (Patricia Arquette) and her typical teenage daughter Amber(Ashley Johnson) who works at a Mickey's restaurant. Amber is gentlypoliticised about her unthinking complicity in the fast food chain by a visitfrom her free-thinking uncle Pete (Ethan Hawke).
Richard Linklater is a pastmaster of the ensemble cast and secures some impressive performances withAshley Johnson capturing the youthful idealism of Amber, Bobby Canavaleconveying all the macho manipulation of UMP supervisor Mike and Bruce Williscontributing one knockout scene in which his company man Harry blithelydismisses the indefensible practices he has sanctioned, dryly noting: "Thetruth is we all have to eat a little shit sometimes."
Attempting to comment oneverything from the politics of food consumption to the plight of the poor and powerlessand the moral meltdown of corporate American, Fast Food Nation has bitten off more than it can comfortably chew. Theresimply isn't the same pithiness and fluidity that marked Linklater's most successfulensemble piece Dazed And Confused. Fast Food Nation may be morethought-provoking but the entertainment comes with a side order ofconscience-prodding and the kind of bitter ironies that lack subtlety.
Recorded Picture Company
David M Thompson
Richard Linklater from the book by Schlosser
Moreno Wilmer Valderrama