Fast Food Nation: Linklater Message Film about Food Industry

Cannes Film Fest 2006–Wearing its heart on its sleeves, “Fast Food Nation,” Richard Linklater’s adaptation of Eric Schlosser’s non-fiction book is a simplistic message film centering on the fast food industry. Deviating from his more personal and original mode of filmmaking, Linklater has made a plot-driven film in which all the characters–white, Latinos, and Mexican–are one-dimensional.

Linklater’s screen version fails to dramatize Schlosser’s source material that was published in 2001 and immediately became a bestseller. Schlosser’s incendiary exploration of the industry would have been more poignant as a cautionary tale and call to arms if it were a documentary.

Preaching to the converted, “Fast Food Nation” the movie has little new to say, and the fact that it says it in such a blatantly ideological way makes it even more disappointing, particularly for an iconic director like Linklater. Bringing to the surface Linklater’s weaknesses as a genre director, “Fast Food Nation” may be his weakest film since “The Newton Boys,” his 1997 gangster-Western saga, which was both an artistic and commercial failure.

For a while, the yarn benefits from its large ensemble of actors, many of whom are well-cast, but all suffering from stereotypical portrayal, which is uncharacteristic of Linklater as a writer and director.

The film begins well by introducing Don Henderson (Greg Kinnear), an ace marketing exec at Mickey’s Fast Food Restaurant chain, home of his biggest invention, “The Big One.” With all his personal bravado and success of his burger, Henderson soon finds out that contaminated meat is getting into the frozen patties of the company’s best-selling burger. Plot kicks into action, when Henderson is sent to UMP, a meat packing plant, to find out the source and extent of the problem. It’s never made clear why would a huge company send its marketing person rather than a top exec to conduct the investigation.

Leaving the cushy confines of the company’s Southern California boardroom for the immigrant-staffed slaughterhouses, teaming feedlots, and cookie cutter strip malls of Middle America, what Henderson discovers is a “Fast Food Nation” of consumers, who haven’t realized that it is they who are being consumed by an industry with a seemingly endless appetite for profit.

The saga unfolds as a journey into the presumably “dark side” of corporate America, focusing on an All-American meal that serves as a metaphor for American capitalism and American globalism, since fast food has been a huge success all over the world, East and West, particularly among children and teenagers.

So who are the participants in this multi-layered industry Illegal Mexican immigrants, who provide cheap labor; meat packing plants run by sexists and exploitative bosses; chains of fast food stores that rip off their nave customers; and, of course, corporate execs like Henderson, whose task is to keep reinventing their companies with newer and bigger products. The film ends with Henderson’s introducing a BBQ sandwich, likely to become the Next Big Thing for his company.

Patricia Arquette plays Cindy, a single mom raising Amber (Ashley Johnson), a typical teenage girl who works at the local Mickey’s but aspires to go beyond the Cody city limits and attend college. Amber is inspired by a visit from her Uncle Pete (Linklater regular Ethan Hawke), who reminds her that, “revolutions are for the young.”

Catalina Sandino Moreno, Ana Claudia Talancon, and Wilmer Valderrama are the Mexicans who cross the border with the help of a coyote named Benny (Luis Guzman) and eventually find jobs at the UMP meat plant in Cody. Benny’s help to smuggle immigrants across the border is his form of protest against a government that taxes him heavily. He rationalizes his conduct as trying to give poor people a chance at having a better life, and if can make extra tax-free money all the better.

It may or may not be intentional that of the dozen or so characters, only two or three emerge as positive and sympathetic, primary among them is Sylvia (Moreno of “Maria Full of Grace”), an angelic figure, a good wife and sister, who at first refuses to work at the plant, opting instead to be a cleaning lady at a motel.

When Sylvia’s boyfriend Raul (Valderrama) is severely injured at work, and the company lies that the reason for the accident is carelessness as a result of drug-abuse, she is forced to go and work at the plant where her sister Coco is employed. Also one-dimensional, Coco is a fiery woman who wants to have a good time and a quick taste of the American Dream. To that extent, she becomes a drug-addict and has an affair with her boss, Mike.

Mike (Bobby Cannavale of “Station Agent”) is a ruthless supervisor who’s known for his sexual exploits of the newly arrived Mexican women; at one point he beds both Coco and sister Sylvia.

Interspersed through the film are images of cows being slaughtered, meat being treated by inexperienced employees, close-ups of intestines, assembly line production of hamburgers, over which Linklater rolls the opening and end credits. (These unappealing images can easily turn anyone into a vegetarian).

Most of the tale is set in the fictional town of Cody, Colorado, a town that’s meant to represent a blend of political liberalism and edginess on the one hand and All-American, fast-food-like, strip mall sameness on the other. The filmmakers claim to have been influenced by Sherwood Anderson’s 1919 classic book, “Winseburg, Ohio,” which tells the story of America through the characters in that town at the end of the nineteenth century. However, they might as well have mentioned Upton Sinclair’s 1906 muckraking novel, “The Jungle.”

A more recent model for the movie might have been “Traffic,” Soderbergh’s superior mosaic-like expose of the drug industry and drug trafficking across the U.S. and Mexican borders. “Traffic” almost pulled it off, perhaps due to the fact that the story was more complex, more multi-nuanced, less propagandistic and less judgmental. In sharp contrast, “Fast Food Nation” is simplistic, one-sided, and judgmental.

On paper, the idea to feature characters that represent different parts of the fast food industry is good. It’s the superficial construction of the characters, the blatant propaganda, and the execution of the film that leave much to be desired.

We get to see kids who work in fast food places, kids who work in the meat packing plants, and the ranching community (embodied by the mythic figure of Kris Kristofferson), which would have dominated the town three decades ago.

Structurally, the film is messy. Henderson, who begins as the protag, literally disappears in the second half. Then midway, Bruce Willis makes an appearance as Harry, delivering one long monologue about the virtues of pragmatism. Playing a cynical meat supplier, he tells Henderson: “We all have to eat a little shit from time to time.” In other words, food contamination is just one of many ills that beset our lives.

In “Fast Food Nation,” the message is the thing. But anyone who has been reading newspapers or watching TV will not be surprised by the film’s insights and revelations about how corporations work, how capital is controlled, how fast food affects the daily lives and health of adults and children.

The film’s most disappointing element is the naivet of the proposals put on the table. There are some vivid scenes, in which a group of students decide to do something. One suggests writing a protest letter, but that’s considered too passive and mild. Instead, the group adopts Amber’s idea to let the cows free (Free Willy!), send them back to nature. Late at night, the youngsters try to liberate the cows from their oppression only to find out that the beasts are not as bright as they thought.

In its earnest moments, “Fast Food Nation” recalls John Sayles’ ensemble-driven sagas, such as “Matewan.” In its melodramatic ones, such as the reconciliation between the two feuding sisters, the movie brings to mind Gregory Nava’s ultra-melodramatic “El Norte.” But this is a Linklater movie, and we have the right to expect more.

“Fast Food Nation” adopts a cyclical mode, like most of Linklater’s movies. The film’s last scene depicts yet another group of illegal Mexican immigrants crossing the border with Benny. They are “fresh meat” about to become employees of the corrupt plant that processes “contaminated meat.”