‘Fast Food’ Leaves Bad Taste and Disappoints
The book ‘Fast Food Nation’ is a magnificent piece of muckraking packed as full with facts as a Big Mac is with trans fats. It strikes a fine balance between setting the scene and delving into every sector associated with the big fast food companies. Never do you feel overburdened with facts nor will your attention ever waver once you begin.
It’s too bad the same can’t be said of its new film adaptation, which opens Nov. 17 and is inspired by Eric Schlosser’s 2001 best-seller.
The film, co-written by Schlosser and director Richard Linklater, is not, fortunately, a visual reproduction of the book. A film adaptation that did the book any justice would need to be four or more hours long just to contain a fraction of the startling facts that made the book so effective.
Instead, the film is a fictional chronicle of the eye-opening discoveries made by Don Anderson (Greg Kinnear), a Mickey’s fast food restaurant executive. His search to find out why so much ‘fecal material’ is making its way into Mickey’s popular ‘The Big One’ burgers leads him to a meat packing plant called UMP, in a small city called Cody.
While in Cody, a city vividly portrayed as having lost its small town charm, overwhelmed by big business chains and fast food restaurants, the plot pursues other narratives, such as how illegal immigrants from Mexico are treated at their UMP jobs and a first-person view of what working at a fast-food restaurant like Mickey’s is like through high-school student Amber (Ashley Johnson), who struggles to make ends meet.
Perhaps the film’s most notable achievement is its presentation of multiple points of view. Viewers hear from the Mickey’s executive, Amber, local college activists and Harry Rydell (Bruce Willis), Mickey’s link to UMP.
The illegal Mexican immigrants, including Wilmer Valderrama as Raul, are convincing, juxtaposing the brutality and disdain with which they are treated at UMP with the fact that they are paid more in a day at the plant than they might earn in a month in Mexico. Ultimately, though, most characters take time away from what could be shots of brutal imagery and cold reality.
Most confusing in ‘Fast Food Nation’ is the purpose of the local university activists, besides serving as a platform for an egregious, out-of-place slam on how unpatriotic the Patriot Act is. The storyline feels as though the filmmakers lost interest or forgot to give some kind of clear resolution.
No, the students’ purpose in the film was not to show young viewers how to get involved, because if that were the case, ‘Fast Food Nation’ just showed America’s youth that resistance to the fast-food industry’s penny-pinching, life-ruining practices is largely futile.
After resorting to Greenpeace-style environmental activism, the students decide to free the UMP cows, which are overcrowded, subsist on chemically-enhanced food and stand in their own fecal material. Yet once the bewildered cows refuse to leave the pen, the students nearly get arrested but never again try to fight UMP.
While Amber quits her job at Mickey’s after joining the college students, this could easily be the result of her working conditions at Mickey’s or the visit from Uncle Pete (Ethan Hawke), who encourages her to work hard, go to college and escape Cody without becoming pregnant.
Also perplexing is the abandoned progression of Kinnear’s character. After meeting with Rudy, an environmentally-correct rancher played by Kris Kristofferson and based on a real person interviewed in Schlosser’s book, Kinnear is horrified to learn that the sanitary conditions of UMP’s illegal immigrant workers are not much better than those of their cows. Still, by the end of the film, he has inexplicably put his ethical qualms behind him and introduces the ‘Barbeque Big One.’
‘Fast Food Nation’ tries too hard to touch on all the topics presented in the book, resulting in a confusing mess of narratives which leads viewers to ask the wrong questions.
The film is not a documentary and is not nearly as effective a fictional complement to the book as it could be. After having seen the movie, those who have read Schlosser’s book will probably assure Schlosser-virgins that the book is much, much better.
The makers of ‘Fast Food Nation’ are proud that the movie does not shove any particular message of Schlosser’s book down the audience’s throat, but this technique is precisely what made the book effective. Not stopping when readers or viewers say ‘when’ is why the book has had a national impact and why the film could have had one as well.
Still, the stunning and wrenching final 10 minutes of the film is how the rest of the film should have been produced. After Raul suffers a serious back injury at UMP that puts him out of work, his girlfriend Sylvia (Catalina Sandino Moreno) must begin working.
Her tour through the UMP plant, ending in her job, is startling. Workers in pure, clean white suits are splattered with blood as the heads of cow carcasses are sawed off. Sylvia walks through a pool of blood covering the floor as she makes her way to a conveyor belt on which workers are emptying chemically-enhanced food and waste from the carcasses without a second thought.
Like a porn movie, most of the characters in this film should only have been used to thread the startling imagery together. Wasting time on developing characters is one of this film’s biggest faults.
The final 10 minutes give a perversely pleasing taste of what a ‘Fast Food Nation’ film could be, but overall the film is brought down by a number of fatty extras.