“When you eat meat, you should know that it is going to be bloody,” author Eric Schlosser told an enthusiastic Berkeley audience after an advance screening of the film Fast Food Nation. In that regard the movie is a success, but in trying to adapt one of the decade’s most influential works of investigative journalism into a dramatic feature film, Schlosser and director Richard Linklater may have bitten off more than they could chew.
Imitating the social-realist-pastiche style made popular by films such as Traffic, Syriana, and Crash, the movie Fast Food Nation interweaves three narratives in an attempt to show how the burger industry affects all strata of society. Near the top of the food chain, we are introduced to Don Henderson (Greg Kinnear), a marketing executive at the burger franchise Mickeys. A newcomer to the dirty politics of the drive-thru, Henderson receives a rude awakening when he’s sent from headquarters to Cody, Colorado to investigate worrisome levels of E.coli showing up in the meat.
Also arriving in Cody is a group of young Mexican immigrants (Catalina Sandino Moreno and That ’70s Show’s Wilmer Valderrama) fresh from an illegal border crossing. They quickly find themselves working the graveyard shift in the town’s meat-packing plant. The third plot thread focuses on the small fry working behind the fast-food counter. It follows Amber, an overqualified teenager working at Mickeys to pay for car insurance. Unsatisfied with the job, she quits after joining the ranks of well-informed but ineffectual college activists.
Readers often criticize book-to-screen adaptations for what they leave out, but in Fast Food Nation, Linklater and Schlosser have erred in the other direction, stuffing too much into a single film. The strength of Schlosser’s book was its populist critique that went beyond the usual liberal harangue against the fast food industry as a minimum-wage paying purveyor of unhealthy meals. It exposed the national proclivity for fast food as both a cause and symptom of much deeper social and environmental ills.
It is difficult to fault the film for attempting to do the same, yet as it tries to touch on the dangers of border crossings, methamphetamine addiction, animal cruelty, super-sized portions, political corruption, artificial flavors and urban sprawl it inevitably stretches its characters thin. The ensemble cast, including cameos by Bruce Willis, Ethan Hawke, and Avril Lavigne, makes matters worse. Good performances by Kinnear and Sandino Moreno notwithstanding, the intrusions of so many famous faces detract from a film already running low on authenticity.
Despite its overt politics and witty script, the movie may disappoint progressively-minded audiences as its central themes of immigrant exploitation and corporate greed rehash points made with more nuance in others films. The plight of illegal immigrants feels over-wrought and lacks the kind of realism found in more patient films like the 1983 El Norte and the more recent Maria Full of Grace. The film’s satire of corporate executives echoes the wry humor of Thank You for Smoking, but swings Fast Food Nation jarringly back and forth between the realm of reality and caricature.
To its credit, the plot shows glimmers of the grace with which Schlosser’s book used the way we eat as a metaphor for how we live. And Linklater adds some visual finesse from long flyovers of crowded stockyards to uncompromisingly gruesome sequences of cows going through the slaughterhouse. Simply gaining access to film such scenes, in the wake of Schlosser’s muckraking, should not be taken for granted. In fact, the crew had to travel to Mexico in order to find a facility that would permit them inside. According to Schlosser, the factory’s management agreed to participate in the film in large part because of the systematic abuse of Mexican immigrants in the United States—a reminder that although Fast Food Nation is an imperfect film, it is impassioned and deeply relevant.