“Fast Food Nation” is the latest effort from director Richard Linklater, and is based upon the international bestseller by Eric Schlosser which revealed some of the less respectable practices of the meat industry. Although the book would have most obviously lent itself to a documentary approach, Linklater (no stranger to ‘difficult’ literary material having recently adapted Philip K. Dick’s “A Scanner Darkly” for the big screen) instead opts for fiction, with the author himself lending a hand to bring out the drama behind the statistics. The film boasts an impressive cast, including Greg Kinnear and Patricia Arquette, and features appearances and small roles for the likes of Bruce Willis, Kris Kristofferson, Ethan Hawke, pop singer Avril Lavigne and many others. It now makes its way to DVD via Tartan, complete with a set of interviews with Linklater and Schlosser, and a short ‘making of’ featurette.
The film is set in a small town in the Southern US, and follows the lives of a number of different individuals involved in one way or another with the fast food industry. This includes a marketing executive sent to investigate worryingly (and disgustingly) high levels of faecal matter in his company’s burgers, a group of illegal immigrants from Mexico who work under horribly unsafe conditions in the meat packing plant, and several teenagers who hold down McJobs while slowly coming to realise the moral implications of what they do.
“Fast Food Nation” most resembles Linklater’s cult debut “Slacker” in that it is an unfocused affair, drifting between the various characters without any kind of driving narrative. Based around a unifying theme rather than story, the film is in effect a snapshot of many lives, and this works quite well, mainly as it highlights the more human aspects of the book rather than regurgitating facts and figures. Although this approach is perhaps less biting and obvious, it makes the film arguably more interesting than it might have been had Linklater simply hashed Schlosser’s material together into yet another “Fahrenheit 911” or “Superszie Me”. On the plus side, whilst these and other documentary style films have come under criticism for lack of objectivity, Linklater effectively sidesteps this by getting his message across through a series of wholly believable characters and realistic situations. As such, the film is not only about the fast food industry, but explores modern American culture in general, in particular the growth of big business and the never ending pursuit of the almighty dollar, and can be seen as a piece of social conscience cinema.
To be fair, the film never really uncovers anything too surprising, whether it be the petty behaviour of the dead end kids working in the fast food outlets (spitting on burgers and idly speculating about robbing the place), the use of illegal immigrants to beef up the workforce, or the general corporate cynicism and exploitation. Still, viewers are certainly liable to learn far more about fast food than they may have liked, and the film probably earns more credibility points with this kind of subtle education than it would have done with an over the top shock expos’. Certainly, its low key call for awareness and exploration of activism makes for a far less patronising experience than other recent similar films, and it benefits from having a discursive rather than preachy air. The only real problem is the long line of Hollywood star cameos, which though no doubt well meaning, really only serve to distract the viewer as they seem to almost be playing themselves.
Linklater’s direction is predictably laid back, employing a vaguely documentary style that helps to keep things believable. This works well enough, though the film does drag a little in parts, and probably could have done with some tighter editing. However, it remains engrossing throughout, and shows a nice line in sly satire which generally amuses without having to resort to laugh out loud gags.
As a result, “Fast Food Nation” is a film very much in line with Linklater’s previous works, being understated, yet quietly intellectual. Though it may not have the same kind of immediate and straightforward impact as the films of Michael Moore, it manages to get its point across in an equally effective manner, and is a welcome addition to the growing ranks of politically and socially aware cinema.
Richard Linklater (director) / Richard Linklater (screenplay), Eric Schlosser (book “Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal”)
CAST: Wilmer Valderrama … Raul
Catalina Sandino Moreno … Sylvia
Ana Claudia Talancon … Coco
Juan Carlos Serran … Esteban
Armando Hernandez … Roberto
Greg Kinnear … Don Anderson