Fast Food Nation

Industry Satire Not As Meaty As It Could Be

Devin D. O'Leary
5 min read
Wilmer Valderrama prepares for a big night in the back of his shag van.
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Richard Linklater’s adaptation of Fast Food Nation isn’t the first film to make fictional fun of a popular nonfiction book. In 1972, Woody Allen turned the self-help sex manual Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Afraid to Ask into a feature-length sketch comedy. In 2004, “SNL” grad Tina Fey used Rosalind Wiseman’s academic examination of teenage cliques, Queen Bees and Wannabes, as the source of her high school comedy Mean Girls . Now, Eric Schlosser’s best-selling nutritional analysis of the supersizing of America has been transformed into an ensemble drama/comedy.

Like the book, the film attempts to examine the health risks involved in the fast food industry as well as the environmental and social consequences. The script (a collaboration between Schlosser and Linklater) tries to make all of these bits and pieces palatable by encasing them inside the shell of a faux Robert Altman film. The result is an odd product–occasionally tasty, but ultimately unfulfilling thanks to all the useless gristle.

Among the film’s main characters is Don Anderson (Greg Kinnear), a smiling family man who works as an ad executive for Mickey’s, a fast-food giant riding high on the success of its new food product, dubbed simply “The Big One.” One day, Don finds himself booted from the boardroom and sent into the field to investigate a troubling report proving dangerously high levels of cow manure in the company’s product. Don’s search leads him to Cody, Colo., home of a megalithic industrial meatpacking plant, which would seem to be the source of the contamination.

Arriving in Cody at approximately the same time is a truckload of illegal Mexican immigrants. Delivered fresh from the greedy hands of a cross-border smuggler, these people are here to staff the meatpacking plant’s more dangerous jobs. Chief among this new batch of under-the-table employees is responsible young Sylvia (Catalina Sandino Moreno, hot off
Maria Full of Grace ), her wild-child sister (spicy Ana Claudia Talancón from The Crime of Father Amaro ) and her quiet boyfriend (Wilmer Valderrama, just biding his time until they start shooting CHiPs ).

Eventually, we also meet a poor but smart high school gal (Ashley Johnson, who played late-addition Chrissy Seaver on “Growing Pains”) hoping to escape her soulless wage-slave life as a cashier at Mickey’s. Along the way, there are cameos by Bruce Willis, Kris Kristofferson, Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke and others, all taking up one side (fast food is evil) or the other (fast food is a necessary evil).

Linklater and Schlosser seem to think they’re making Upton Sinclair’s
The Jungle for the 21 st century. But a topic this big needs much more pointed criticism. Because of the wide canvas they’ve painted, the story feels loose, emotionally distant and frequently off topic. Even though someone shows up to give some rote recitation of facts from Schlosser’s book every 10 minutes or so, the film can’t seem to keep its focus. Greg Kinnear’s character, for example, is built up to be the linchpin in the entire story–except that about halfway through the movie he shrugs his shoulders and disappears entirely. Moreno, Talancón and Valderrama end up in exactly the sort of exploitative tale you’d expect–with sex and drugs tossed into the mix for good measure. At the same time, our little cashier girl starts becoming more socially conscious, eventually hooking up with a bunch of idiotic college eco-terrorists (Avril Lavigne among them). It’s hard to track the overarching socioeconomic message when the people we’re following either don’t seem to care or make incredibly stupid personal decisions. (The industry executives may be evil, but at least they make sense.)

By the end, it’s hard to tell what the point of it all is. The final, grisly shots inside a real cattle-rendering plant aren’t exactly appetizing, but utterly failed to put me off my Happy Meal afterwards. Yes, watching cows get killed and gutted is a bit upsetting, but it isn’t much of an indictment of the fast-food industry. Yes, kids, this is where your burger comes from: dead cows. The images are shocking to us city folk, but tell us nothing about the corruption of the industry, the epic problem of obesity in America, the dangers of cross-contamination, of over-breeding, of pollution. If you’re a hardcore member of PETA, you’ll happily stand up and chant “meat is murder” when the snuff starts. Otherwise, you’re apt to find yourself oddly unmoved by it all.

Thank You For Smoking , Jason Reitman’s sharp and funny adaptation of Christopher Buckley’s novel, recently hit DVD stores. Now that’s an incisive satire of a megabuck industry. The jokes sting, the message is pointed and the characters remain vividly in-your-face. Obviously, Linklater is more skilled at portraying slackers ( Dazed & Confused, Before Sunrise, The School of Rock ) than he is at evincing fired-up corporate shills and social activists. Like a McDonald’s cheeseburger, Fast Food Nation is likely to leave you unfulfilled, uninspired and just slightly queasy.

“Does this smock make me look fat?”

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