I still remember when I finished reading Eric Schlosser’s non-fiction account of the fast food industry and America’s eating habits. I haven’t been a frequent customer of places like McDonalds, Burger King and the like for years, but after reading the book, I was determined to never stand within ten feet of such establishments ever again. The book is an astonishing, investigative look at many different facets of our culture and eating habits. Everyone should read “Fast Food Nation”. You will be shocked. As I was.
I was initially surprised to learn a big screen version of the book was in the works. Naturally, I assumed it would be a documentary and was even more surprised to learn the project was a fictional film directed by Richard Linklater (“Slacker”, “Before Sunrise”, “Before Sunset”) and starring, among others, Greg Kinnear. But I warmed to the idea, anticipating a biting, dark comedy covering some of the same subject material, reaching a larger audience, educating more people about the horror of places like McDonalds and Burger King.
Raul (Wilmer Valderrama, TV’s “That 70’s Show”) and Sylvia (Catalina Sandino Moreno), a young married couple, pay a man to lead them across the border to the US. Upon their arrival, Benny (Luis Guzman), in charge of transporting the new immigrants to various places, drops them off in Colorado and all of the immigrants share a single motel room. Mike (Bobby Cannavale), a supervisor at UMP, arrives and hires Raul and Sylvia to work in the company’s large meat packing company. The company provides patties for Mickey’s new bestselling hamburger, the Big One, earning the contract because they can provide a lot of meat, very fast, at very cheap prices. Those fast food hamburgers are cheap for a reason. Don Anderson (Greg Kinnear), a new marketing executive at Mickey’s, and the creator of the Big One, is sent to Colorado to investigate complaints about UMP and their product. Some college students obtained uncooked patties, tested them and found they contained more than a little fecal matter. Not exactly the type of information they want to come out about their burgers. Amber (Ashley Johnson), a teenage girl working at the Mickey’s in Colorado, meets some college students and learns the facts about the environmental harm done by the meat packing plant. Her friend, and co-worker, Brian (Paul Dano, “Little Miss Sunshine”), a slacker, is intrigued by the recent rash of fast food place robberies.
“Fast Food Nation” would probably have made a better statement as a documentary. As a fictionalized film, it needs to have a strong point of view, present clear journeys for each of the many characters, and provide some sort of closure to make an effective statement, to move the masses to act. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t accomplish most of these goals. It comes close on some accounts, but a misstep here and there prevent it from attaining any lasting status within the public conscious.
The film is produced by Participant Films, a rare thing in Hollywood. Participant is the company behind “North Country”, “Syriana”, “An Inconvenient Truth”, and others. What do all of these films have in common? They present messages, or depict people struggling against oppressive companies or the like. Participant seems determined to make films challenging our views, to inform us and help us make informed decisions about global events. In other words, Participant is a movie company with a conscience. Unfortunately, “Fast Food Nation” is, of the films I have seen, the weakest film in their library.
As Greg Kinnear’s Don learns more and more about the true nature of his company’s product, we see his plastered smile falter a bit and he has more difficulty cramming the Big One into his mouth and swallowing. The patties contain what again? He digs for the truth, meets with a shady go-between (Bruce Willis in a long cameo) and visits the meat packing plant. When he is mildly threatened (what will his wife and kids do if he loses his job), he finds it hard to swallow the meat and then backs off, continuing to work for Mickey’s and helping to launch their new Barbecue Big One. Because the character is so wishy washy, he becomes more than an adequate symbol for the film as a whole. The message is there, but it seems a bit amateurish, a bit wishy washy.
This amateurish feel rears its ugly head in an even more pronounced fashion during the story involving Amber, the teenager working at Mickey’s. At home, her mom, Cindy (Patricia Arquette), proves to think of her daughter as more of a best friend. After her job at a local Pet Superstore, Cindy goes on one date after another, trying to find the next Mr. Right Now. When she returns home, drunk, she wants to confide in Amber, like she would in her high school friends, interrupting her homework. She is amazed to learn Amber is working on a biology paper due next Tuesday. The daughter appears very level headed, until her Uncle Pete (Ethan Hawke) comes for a visit and starts chastising both mother and daughter for working for superstores and wearing uniforms. What happened to their dreams, to making their lives better? Then Amber attends a college party and meets some college students (among them a student played by singer Avril Lavigne) who are interested in making a statement involving UMP. They have a lengthy discussion about the best way to get their message across, but this scene just smacks of “High School Play”. It doesn’t work and the end result is less than satisfying.
The best part of the story concerns the two Mexican immigrants. Wilmer Valderrama and Catalina Sandino Moreno give their story an almost documentary feel; if Valderrama were not recognizable, it could pass. Their story begins in Mexico and follows their long arduous journey across the border, their initial home in Colorado and how they become involved with the story. Raul works at UMP because the money is good; he can tolerate the sights and smells for $10 an hour, a fortune for his wife and sister-in-law, Coco (Ana Claudia Talancon). Sylvia takes a job at UMP, but can only last a day and then begins work a local hotel, making less money as a maid, but she is able to stomach the work. The story follows them as they begin to settle into life, get an apartment, and start to experience all that America has to offer (including a dinner of Chinese Chicken Salad and cokes at another chain restaurant). But of course, drama must ensue and their life takes a turn.
This is also the story most clearly borrowed from the book. Depicting their journey and their life, the book provides a dramatic look at what their life is like. The film does a good job of illuminating this, showing us the grittier details of their journey. For instance, all twelve people in Benny’s van are put up in the same dumpy motel room, waiting for Benny to bring potential employers.
Coco also works at UMP and soon catches the eye of Mike (Cannavale), a notorious womanizer. They soon begin an affair and Mike introduces her to drugs, drugs he uses to keep the people on his shift working at full speed. Of course, these same drugs also impair the reactions of the workers and causes accidents.
Perhaps the best part of the film is when we actually see what happens to the cows as they are herded into the meat packing plant. We watch as Sylvia watches a cow get herded into a feeder chute, then as another worker… Well, if you don’t know what happens already, I’m not going to tell you. Let’s just say, its gruesome and its easy to see why these places, in an attempt to fill quotas, speed through the work and turn out contaminated product. But our government continues to cut back on these inspectors. Makes sense.
The message in “Fast Food Nation” is clearly something many people in Hollywood wanted to be involved in, which is why people like Bruce Willis, Kris Kristofferson, Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke and others take on smaller roles. I can’t imagine they were offered a lot of money for their appearances, they clearly wanted to be involved for the message. Yet, because the message is not very powerful, their appearances become more distracting than anything else. Willis, in particular, has a lengthy exchange with Greg Kinnear’s character more closely resembling a monologue, in a weak effort to get some of the film’s more blatant messages across. The character represents everything bad about the meat packing industry and fights for their policies and standards, revealing what they feel and why we should be very afraid to bite into a hamburger produced at such a facility. This character more closely resembles a lecture given at an elementary school assembly; I half expected his character to pull out an easel and flip charts to further illustrate his already blatant points.
The problem is the film never achieves a balance, between entertainment and information. Because the film is fictionalized the information has to be subtle, yet memorable. It is neither. Because the filmmakers decided to fictionalize the material from the book, you would expect the story to be more biting, contain more dark comedy, or more explosive drama, it doesn’t. Many of the actors appear to be standing around, waiting for their turn to make an appearance, reading their lines off of cue cards.
Rather than pay $7 to $11 to watch an actor read cue cards, why not just buy the book and read it. Get the full emotional impact of the information. And prepare to never eat another fast food product again.
Your body will thank you.