The Junk Food of Writing

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Fast Food Nation (Linklater, 2006)

Corporations are nefarious. Even if you are unaware of this common belief, it will be drilled into you at every angle, thinly disguised under a layer of interweaved narratives, during Richard Linklater’s artlessly preachy Fast Food Nation.

With Fast Food Nation, Greg Kinnear, along with cast and crew, bite the big one.

The title may sound familiar, since the film is a very loose adaptation of Eric Schlosser’s meticulous, well-researched nonfiction exposé of the same name. Before the screening, Linklater, co-writing with Schlosser, warned fans of the muckraking bestseller that the film is not faithful to its source material. Instead, the filmmakers decided to weave a fictionalized mosaic, including a plethora of characters from three intertwining storylines that revolve around some aspect of the fast food industry.

This caveat is unnecessary, however, due to the film’s absurdly exaggerated presentation; it’s impossible to mistake the adaptation as nonfiction. Richard Linklater also preceded the showing of
Fast Food Nation with a preface, “I’ll tell you what Fast Food Nation is not; it is not a documentary, a comedy or a satire.” Due to the film’s penchant to overstate the obvious and embellish the supposed truth, though, it’s difficult not to view it as a satirical farce.

Arriving in theaters a century after Upton Sinclair’s opus on immigration and Chicago’s meatpacking industry,
Fast Food Nation—with its depiction of border-jumping Mexican factory workers, a complacent marketing executive (Greg Kinnear) and a naïve teenage employee (Ashley Johnson, best known as little Chrissy Seaver from “Growing Pains”)—similarly insists that it’s a jungle out there.

Fast Food Nation begins with familiarly colored yellow-and-red opening credits and then cuts to a dreamy sequence in a fast food eatery known as Mickeys. Mickeys is filled with happy families and youth baseball teams; the camera floats around until it reaches its destination: a “Big One,” Mickey’s featured burger. The camera closes-up on the burger and lingers for a moment before “entering” the burger, a David Lynch-style. At this moment, the film ostensibly severs all ties from idealized fantasy and sets up its multiple narratives in a world Linklater describes as “very realistic.” A gaggle of Mexicans (among them are Wilmer Valderrama and Maria Full of Grace’s Catalina Sandino Moreno) navigate through the desert to sneak into America, and later as they ride their bikes down the highway, it is apparent hat the land of opportunities is paved with chain restaurants.

For a film striving for gritty realism, though,
Fast Food Nation consistently betrays it with hyperbole. Linklater’s cynicism towards greed and unhealthy diets, while justifiable, is ultimately harmful for this production; it carries him—and the film—over the top. Consequently, the overly disparaging and didactic presentation is harder to swallow than a greasy Big Mac. Within ten minutes of the film, Greg Kinnear’s character is informed that an outsider’s test found fecal matter in Mickeys’ burgers. “There’s shit in the burgers” yells another executive. Judging from cartoonish cameos by Bruce Willis and Ethan Hawke, the hamburgers are not the only things full of shit.

This is alarmingly discouraging, since Richard Linklater is often an adept, honest and insightful screenwriter and director; he has created such brilliantly talky and conceptual films such as
Slacker, Before Sunrise, Waking Life and Before Sunset. Fans of the auteur can only hope that Fast Food Nation does not signal an end to Linklater’s philosophical and deeply humanistic works of all-talk-and-no-play and a start to vapid, preachy “call to action” filmmaking.

In an interview with the Beacon, Richard Linklater, casually displaying his social and political consciousness, acutely observed that there is “a mass delusion [in
America]– you’re not supposed to care about your health.” He is just as talkative as the characters in his previous films, but he often pauses in introspection. When asked what he wants the audience to make of Fast Food Nation, he responded, “I hope people like the characters in the movie. That’s where my heart is: depicting life; it’s the reason why I did not do it as a documentary. I wasn’t concerned with only making one polemical, political single statement.” Similar to a corporation, however, the film is more focused on efficiency and message than the human element. Therefore, Linklater’s quest to make a dramatic character study fails, since most of the characters seem more like vague ideas than individuals. “I hope that people come out of it and maybe read up on the issues as consumers,” Linklater added. This is essential, since—despite the abundance of preachy statements—the film does not inform the audience much; it is more numbing than empowering.

Since the simplistic narratives are not working for him by the film’s close, Linklater throws in a gut-splattering and, for weak bellies, gut-wrenchingly graphic scene of slaughterhouse shenanigans. The cheap, uncreative choice to include this manipulative musical montage of meat in the denouement exposes Linklater’s desperation to serve the audience an unhappy meal. Ultimately, the film hits a hypocritical note because, due to all its deriding of corporations and their cruelty to animals, the film spends most of its running time beating a dead horse.


  • Fast Food Nation is an impactful movie indeed... just today i passed up a sausage mcmuffin because of it. It's obviously worth passing up fast food for more than health reasons.

    By Anonymous patrick, at 1:32 PM  

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