Fast Food Nation

Matt Lankes/Fox Searchlight Pictures
Richard Linklater/United States 2006

There is shit in the meat. Didn’t you know? Eric Schlosser’s muckraking book Fast Food Nation was highly praised not only for its exposé of slaughterhouse practices, but also for its analysis of how fast-food culture has permeated American society. Schlosser worked with Richard Linklater to adapt this into a film, which uses the philosophy behind the book in an attempt to serve up a punch in the gut, but only manages a stale combination of clichés.

Uni-Globe Meat Packing is fictional Cody, Colorado’s main employer, a huge plant staffed mainly by illegal Mexican immigrants, including Raul (Wilmer Valderrama) and his sister-in-law Coco (Ana Claudia Talancón) who is sleeping with supervisor Mike (Bobby Cannavale). Don (Greg Kinnear), a marketing wizard for the hugely successful burger chain Mickey’s, travels from the headquarters to investigate reports on the high fecal content in the meat sourced from the plant. He stays at the hotel where Raul’s wife Sylvia (Catalina Sandino Moreno) works in housekeeping, and eats at the local Mickey’s, where Amber (Ashley Johnson) works the till.

There are so many characters the film can’t keep track of them and none of these supposedly interconnecting stories gel. Linklater’s style hasn’t developed from the gimmick of his first film Slacker, which followed people briefly in real time before losing interest and following someone else. Why have Don pass Raul and Coco watching a training video in a language they don’t speak unless that connection will lead somewhere? Why introduce four new people in the last half hour of the film for Amber alone to interact with? Why does only Don meet or speak to the intelligent realist and former Uni-Globe supplier Rudy (Kris Kristofferson)?

Most importantly, why aren’t the Mexican characters as three-dimensional as the white ones in the film? We follow Raul, Sylvia and Coco over desert scrubland into jobs where losing a limb is a very real threat, but we’re given no reason to care about them. It’s not the fault of the actors: Valderrama’s charm can’t be hidden by protective clothing, Talancón’s fiery performance marks her as one to watch, and Sandino Moreno proves her Oscar nomination for Maria Full of Grace was no fluke. But their characters are never given the chance to blossom into who they really are beyond what happens to them.

By contrast, Johnson delivers a cheerful natural performance as a hard-working aspirational teenager, and her scenes with Patricia Arquette as her mother are an endearing portrait of how not to be crushed by minimum-wage slavery. But it’s clear Linklater relates to them, Amber’s burger-flipping colleagues, and her Uncle Pete (Ethan Hawke, with more to do in three scenes than the Hispanic cast combined) in a way that he can’t with his non-white cast.

Perhaps focusing a mainstream American feature on Mexican immigrants was too radical. Then at least imagine how interesting Fast Food Nation would have been if it centered on Mike. The coyotes bring the illegals to him to pick and choose from, and the female workers don’t get promoted unless they sleep with him. As he screams at his workers or feeds them amphetamines to keep the line moving, it’s clear Mike’s under terrific pressure himself. Cannavale, the only major character shown speaking English and Spanish fluently, brings a fleshy, compelling resonance to the film. What if it had been him worrying about the shit everyone has to eat?

American cinema seems to have moved on in that it’s now the suffering of illegal Hispanic immigrants – rather than blacks (of whom there are none in this film, perhaps due to its Colorado setting) – that teaches important social lessons. But any possible justification for this is as tired as the arguments presented in the film. For all the windmills Fast Food Nation tilts against, it’s all been done before. The closest we get to a moment of freshness is a college activist saying, “I can’t think of anything more patriotic than violating the Patriot Act,” but it’s brattish petulance rather than an inspirational rallying cry. The same is true of this disappointing film.

© 2006 Sarah Manvel. All rights reserved.

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