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Where’s the beef?

December 7, 2006

Richard Linklater has taken a curious approach to his adaptation of Fast Food Nation, the bestselling nonfiction book by Eric Schlosser that helped spark America’s early-’00s disillusionment with McDonalds’ and its brethren. He’s turned it into a fictional account of a dozen souls tied to the fast food industry.

I imagine he figured two things: one, that Morgan Spurlock had already made the definitive documentary on the industry, Super Size Me, and two, audiences would be more responsive to a star-filled drama than a Frederick Wiseman-style expose. But as good as Super Size Me was–and it was excellent–the perfect complement to its personalized look at the nutritional horrors of McDonalds would have been a globalized investigation of the infrastructure that produces a 576-calorie Big Mac with 12 grams of saturated fat for $3.10. A documentary would have made visual what was implicit in both Spurlock’s movie and Schlosser’s book. Instead, Linklater has made a disjointed, unconvincing, unengaging, occasionally dismally acted mess that fails even to shock until its final minutes.

I was skeptical from the opening scene. Linklater’s camera follows a burger from the grill to the bun to the wrapper to the tray to the table. No problem with that, but when the anonymous carrier of the tray turns toward the dining area of the fictional fast food restaurant Mickey’s, it’s packed, full of smiling white families laughing and talking over their shakes and fries. That’s in stark contrast to every visit I’ve made to a fast food restaurant in the last 10 years, where the skin color is darker and the faces are more grim than gregarious. Trips to McDonald’s stopped being a fun-filled family event sometime around 1960. Well before we learned how unhealthy cheeseburgers were, we knew that a value meal was a dinner of last resort.

The scene speaks to a fundamental problem with Fast Food Nation: it’s at least five years too late. There’s no shock anymore in learning that feces has found its way into ground meat, no surprise at learning cheap illegal labor works at meatpacking plants, no indignation over the lousy hygiene of teenage linecooks. Fast food corporations have known about their image problems for years; before Fast Food Nation even came out, McDonald’s had already started transforming its franchises into Wifi-friendly Starbucks-clones.

The action in Fast Food Nation centers in and around Cody, a charmless Colorado exurb home to Mickey’s main meat supplier. There are four main characters: Don Anderson (Greg Kinnear, doing his best Greg Kinnear), a midlevel Mickey’s exec sent to town to investigate disturbing levels of fecal matter in the meat; Raul and Sylvia (Wilmer Valderrama and Catalina Sandina Moreno, both unconvincing), an illegal Mexican immigrant couple whose first jobs in the States are at the meatpacking plant; and Amber (Ashley Johnson), a sweet-faced teenager who works the register at one of the six Mickey’s franchises in Cody. They are less characters than archtypes whose presence is intended to demonstrate the way the upper middle class (Kinnear), the lower middle class (Johnson) and the poor (Valderamma and Moreno) are all equally powerless in the face of corporate corruption.

Fast Food Nation is at its most unconvincing when various recognizable stars pop in for diatribe-laden cameos. As Amber’s nomadic uncle, Ethan Hawke gives a predictabally Hawke-ish speech to Amber about revolting against authority and following your conscience. Kris Kristofferson, overacting as a grizzled rancher* who’s been blackballed by the meatpackers, tells Kinnear that his company’s food is crap. Worst of the lot is Bruce Willis, who mugs his way through a painful cameo as the self-satisfied middleman in the Mickey’s supply chain. “We all have to eat shit sometimes,” he tells Kinnear. This would be the movie’s best line, if it weren’t repeated in some form four more times throughout his and Kinnear’s drawn-out exchange.

What most surprised me about Fast Food Nation was how little I cared about any of the characters. Linklater can create characters that are so beguiling that you wish the movie would never end–especially in Before Sunrise and Dazed and Confused–but here he’s created characters so dimensionless and unengaging that it barely disturbed me when Raul was hurt in an industrial accident.

The irony is that the film’s most spellbinding scene is probably real-life footage. In the final setpiece of the film, Linklater takes us on a tour of the plant’s killing floor. The slaughter of a cow is a repulsive process: the animal is first stunned and then shot in the head while still writhing; the throat is slit, spitting blood; the carcass is yanked up by a pulley system, where the lower legs are hacked off and the skin is stripped away; and the guts and skinless heads are disposed of via conveyor belt. The scene provides the eye-opening shock I was looking for all along, but I’m not sure what Linklater’s getting at. As far as I can tell, there was nothing particularly dangerous to the workers or unclean about the cow’s death; it’s gross, but the slaughtering process is the same whether you’re making low-grade ground meat or filet mignon. The scene isn’t an indictment of the fast food industry, it’s an indictment of killing animals.

In his attempt to avoid making a straightforward documentary out of Fast Food Nation, Linklater has given us the worst of both worlds: an uninvolving drama that, in the form of celebrity cameos, still has talking heads. Even with the fictionalized approach, Fast Food Nation has been unable to drum up much box office, making less than $1 million in more than two weeks. But Linklater probaly knew in the post-Fahrenheit 9/11 world, a documentary needs a stylistic edge beyond its incendiary subject matter. The soft-spoken, unassuming Linklater knows he’s no Michael Moore; he’s not even a Morgan Spurlock. He wasn’t ready to go bowling for e.coli.

*From the Movie Critics’ Handbook, 15th edition, 2005: “No matter what part he plays, Kris Kristofferson’s characters must always be referred to as grizzled. Rugged or crusty are not acceptable substitutes.”

3 Comments leave one →
  1. December 7, 2006 9:32 pm

    I love several Richard Linklater movies — DAZED AND CONFUSED, BEFORE SUNRISE, SCHOOL OF ROCK — but I’m staying far away from this one. Did you see A SCANNER DARKLY, by any chance? I skipped that one, too, because his earlier movie of that kind, WAKING LIFE, gave me a headache.

  2. December 8, 2006 12:59 am

    I didn’t see Scanner Darkly, but I had a very different opinion of Waking Life. I haven’t a clue what it’s about, but it remains one of the most visually striking and mood-altering movies I’ve ever seen. It’s one of the rare movies that was better for having no recognizable plot; one of the reasons I’m not super-enthusiastic about seeing A Scanner Darkly is that it seems overly plotted.

    As for Dazed and Confused and Before Sunrise (and I would add in Before Sunset), I completely agree. School of Rock is very funny, but it would have been terrible without Jack Black’s inspired performance (SOR provides some of the best evidence of a way a great performance can lift a mediocre script and pedestrian direction and staging).

    Linklater’s a funny animal. He has no distinctive style–unless you consider the repeated casting of Ethan Hawke an aesthetic hallmark–but he’s made three of the best movies of the last two decades. At the same time, he is completely capable of making nondescript studio comedies like Bad News Bears. Sometimes he’s an indie iconoclast, sometimes he seems like a hack. He’s the kind of director who will almost certainly never win an Oscar but when his career is all said and done, we’ll realize that he directed some of the most memorable movies of his generation.

  3. December 8, 2006 9:08 pm

    I liked Before Sunset, but I would never recommend it to anyone who hadn’t seen — and loved — Before Sunrise. I agree about School of Rock — Black’s performance makes the movie. And I would say if Linklater has a trademark, it’s that many of his movies (Slacker, Before Sunrise, Waking Life, Before Sunset) are gabfests. I’ve heard A Scanner Darkly is, too.

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