Fast Food Nation

| December 31, 2006

If one were to compile a list of the most radical filmmakers working today–the political provocateurs and counter-cultural firebrands of our time–it’s a pretty safe bet that you wouldn’t find Richard Linklater near the top of it. A sardonic, Gen-X beat-poet, the writer-director of Dazed and Confused and subUrbia has always put character and conversation ahead of broad social agendas; he’d sooner capture a day in the life of some stoner dropouts than topple a corporate empire. Yet imbedded within the man’s talky odes to restless bohemia are shards of political discontent, hints of a true activist spirit. It’s there in Before Sunset, when Jesse and Celine argue about the state of the world, and in the left-leaning rants and musings of Waking Life. But even at their most provocative, these rabble-rousing moments are just interesting detours: Linklater is an entertainer first, a revolutionary second.
Or so we thought. This year, the Linklater we know and love–that purveyor of witty, breezy, twenty-something comedies–officially went on vacation, relinquishing creative control to his inner anarchist. First order of business: this summer’s A Scanner Darkly, his challenging and heady take on Philip K. Dick’s classic sci-fi drug parable. Most of the filmmaker’s calling cards–the rambling, naturalistic dialogue, the slacker misfit heroes, and that funky rotoscoping animation style from Waking Life–remained intact. It was his artistic intentions that had changed: grim and frighteningly relevant, the film took dead aim at our government’s dubious motives in the war on drugs. Here was a dsytopian cautionary tale in the guise of a trippy mind-bender. Clearly, Linklater wasn’t screwing around, not this time.
A mere two months later, he’s back, in full fighting mode, with Fast Food Nation, an overt act of protest-by-way-of-cinema. Armed with a laundry list of unpleasant statistics–culled, of course, from the bestseller on which his film is based–Linklater is a man on a mission, and he’s crafted the year’s most vehement message movie. The message? In a nutshell, that McDonalds and its corporate-owned brethren are exploiting their workers and their customers, earning billions peddling unsanitary product to clueless consumers…and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. It’s a hefty serving of an unsettling reality, complete with disturbing insider secrets and actual slaughterhouse footage. Bon appetit.
Yet the most controversial thing about this hand grenade of a film is not its incendiary subject matter or its snippets of ghastly docu-footage, but, rather, its plan of attack. In a nervy strategic move, Linklater has taken Eric Schlosser’s nonfiction exposé and transformed it into a fictional narrative. Eschewing a just-the-facts-ma’am documentary approach, he’s created a story and characters through which to filter his agenda, a scripted drama peppered with pertinent details and alarming tidbits from the novel. As a creative tactic, this proves to be a double-edged sword, advantageous to the cause (in that it engenders compassion for flesh-and-blood people, albeit fictional ones), yet detrimental to the drama (in that all the data and sound bites often stifle the story’s natural flow).
Essentially, Fast Food Nation is Linklater’s own Traffic: a narrative mosaic composed of loosely connected storylines and character arcs, all centered around a major U.S. industry–just substitute burgers and fries for crack and heroin. Set primarily in a small Texas burg, the film links its various players through the company they all work for, a fictional fast food giant called Mackies. There’s the newly appointed Vice President (Greg Kinnear, solid and dependable, per usual), sent in to investigate some troubling sanitation concerns; a young Mexican couple (That 70s Show‘s Wilmer Valderrama and Maria Full of Grace‘s Catalina Sandino Moreno) who have crossed the border for a job at the distribution plant; and a plucky teenager (Ashley Johnson) working the front counter at a local branch. Each of these separate plotlines (which run parallel, rarely intersecting) illuminate a different problem with the industry, from the unsafe working conditions in the factories to the corrupt business ethics in the corporate offices. Meting out factoids as it chugs along, the film shifts into an awkward but compelling rhythm, its storytelling duties often in conflict with its journalistic responsibilities.
Of course, no such tension exists in the novel. Schlosser’s tome is scathing and precise, an exhaustively researched and impeccably structured assault on the fast food industry–really, a modern descendant of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. Schlosser is a thorough and persuasive muckraker. Linklater is more like your stoned uncle, occasionally insightful, often impassioned, yet frequently prone to long-winded digressions and go-nowhere anecdotes. So it makes perfect sense when Ethan Hawke (Jimmy Stewart to Linklater’s Frank Capra) shows up as a stoned uncle and delivers a lengthy rant on globalization. Hawke’s appearance is just one of many egregious celebrity cameos: actors drop in, give a speech or spout some terrifying statistic, then disappear. This reliance on big stars to serve as mouthpieces is emblematic of the film’s problems, most of which stem from Linklater’s ramshackle approach to storytelling. Too often, Fast Food Nation feels like a series of loosely related vignettes, interesting moments that never quite coalesce into a completely effective whole. In this way, it’s reminiscent of the filmmaker’s previous efforts, particularly his digressive, amorphous, slice-of-life ensembles, like Waking Life and Slacker.
Except this time, Linklater isn’t just performing intellectual masturbation, i.e. letting his random philosophical conceits hijack the story. The saving grace of this messy, imperfect polemic is its clear-eyed compassion. If Fast Food Nation: The Movie trumps Fast Food Nation: The Book in any discernible way, this is it: putting a human face on the problems the book broadly illuminates. Linklater’s humanistic intentions are most evident in the storyline involving the Mexican couple. Clinging to an idealistic notion of the American Dream, they cross the border for employment and are subsequently exploited, degraded, and brutalized, chewed up and spit out by a merciless system. These devastating scenes–bolstered, as they are, by the fine acting of Valderrama and Moreno–could actually generate the outrage the filmmaker is aiming for.
Then again, if not, there’s still that aforementioned slaughterhouse footage. A harrowing bit of shock vérité, this brief but graphic glimpse at the killing floor is probably enough to turn some viewers off beef entirely. They say a picture is worth a thousand words: Linklater might have kept that better in mind. As a bleeding-heart call to action, Fast Food Nation is most effective when it stops telling us the awful truth and simply gives us a big eye-full of it. Luckily, there’s enough gruesome fact and fiction here to kick-start a revolution–or, at the very least, to get America to cut back on those Big Macs.

About the Author:

Jon Bastian Jon is a playwright and screenwriter who lives in Los Angeles, where he has been currently appearing in Flash Theater LA when not working for Cesar Millan to keep his dogs rolling in kibble.
Filed in: Video and DVD

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