“Fast Food Nation” has a lot working against it. Sure it’s got an all-star cast and a quality director, but that’s where the good vibes stop. Based on the nonfiction book of the same name by Eric Schlosser, which was a scathing expose on fast-food chains and the meat-packing plants that supply the nation its beef. Dramatizing a broad nonfiction book is trouble enough, but then by embracing the recent Hollywood trend of making a message movie with interlocking stories, we are left with a convoluted mess that at best could be described as overwrought and pretentious and at worst a failure.
The movie begins by giving us a window into the plight of illegal immigrants as we follow Wilmer Valderrama (“That ’70s Show”) and Catalina Sandino Moreno (“Maria Full of Grace”) as they travel across the border and wind up being exploited labor in a meat-packing plant in Colorado. Meanwhile, Greg Kinnear plays a marketing executive from the fictional fast-food chain “Mickey’s” who is sent out to the same meat-packing plant to investigate the high fecal content that has been discovered in the beef.
But wait, there’s more! We also follow around some wage-slave high school kids that work at the local Mickey’s, a marginalized rancher, and some militant college kids desperately looking to make a difference. So we have a cast of thousands, but what’s the point?, you might ask. Good question.
This strange movie trend started a few years ago with a very good film called “Traffic,” which used a couple of interconnected stories to show the global impact of drug trafficking. The movie was focused and cared just as much about character development and story as it did its overall message. Then came “Syriana,” which used the same technique to take on U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, then the highly overrated “Crash,” which looked at racism in California and out now in theaters is “Babel,” which looks to remind us that just being a human being is terrible enough.
All of these movies had their moments, but ultimately dropped the ball because they got too caught up in the multi-story gimmick and their desire to beat you over the head with their message; so much so that the film’s effectiveness gets swept to the side along with the simple art of storytelling.
“Fast Food Nation” is simply the latest and worst offender of the lot. At least those other movies had their ultimate message to fall back on; whereas, I’m not really sure exactly what the message of “Fast Food Nation” really was.
I guess it’s that fast food is bad for you, which we already knew, and the scattershot approach looks pretty weak when you look at a movie like “Thank You For Smoking,” which took on big tobacco with a laser-like accuracy. The biggest villain I suppose is the meat-packing plant, which is a dangerous place to work, but is portrayed as being more bloody and yucky than anything else.
Even more unclear is who we should blame for the guilt the movie is trying to stir up: Corporate greed, the U.S. immigration policy, U.S. environmental policy, health standards, Klingons?
Director Richard Linklater is a fine director with such eclectic films as “School of Rock” and “Before Sunrise” but despite his best efforts he can’t keep this movie focused. It’s also hard to drum up a lot of empathy for the characters when we don’t spend more than five minutes with them at a time.
I think the ultimate point is to make vegetarians feel better about themselves as the movie degrades into a bovine snuff film with a climactic tour of the kill floor at the plant. Guess what people, eating beef involves the killing and butchering of cows. I know it’s hard to believe. Maybe growing up in Oklahoma surrounded by these dim animals made me a little callous to this fact of nature, but after all the injustices this movie parades out, the idea that the routine slaughtering of cattle is supposed to be the final push that rallies us to arms is laughable. Then couple that with the irony that after almost two hours of extolling the evils of beef, the most recent deadly food item to do evil across the country was green, leafy vegetables, but I digress.
Yes, it’s true; there needs to be a serious look at increasing regulations of the meat-packing industry and the United States immigration policy needs a serious overhaul, but I learned this not from the muddled failure of a movie that is “Fast Food Nation” but from reading a newspaper. Maybe some subjects are just better left in print.
“Fast Food Nation” is rated R for disturbing images, strong sexuality, language, and drug content.