Those who could most use the lesson inherently taught by watching woefully underpaid illegals eviscerating cattle in a style befitting a Hellraiser sequel are more than likely not throwing down popcorn in front of Fast Food Nation. They are instead partaking of the McDonaldses of the movie world: your swashbuckling drunk epics, your hate-each-other-then-fall-in-love comedies, your anthropomorphic vehicles for the kids. But, for all the hawing that the film’s true audience (self-congratulatory liberals) will be doing about corporations and immigration reform after viewing, they will also be missing the point of this movie.
On the surface, Fast Food Nation appears to be a stern lecture about the day-to-day evil of the meatpacking and fast-food industries. And for the last thirty minutes, it is. However, even the most dedicated of Wal-Mart shoppers holding Icee cups could tell you that the fast-food industry is, at best, a leviathan whose sole purpose is to provide idiots with jobs. Hearing the vomitous truths about these places may actually dissuade some people from eating there, and that is why they safely avoid listening. To pay another fifty cents to buy “organic” is to die slowly, and for the majority of regular people, guilt can’t cost more than a nickel. But deep down, we know that a few terrible things had to happen before the burger hit our plate. So if everybody is in agreement that these food conglomerates are soulless, greedy, and deeply ingratiated in Faustian deals, then what is the point in telling us again? The answer is, this movie really doesn’t.
Richard Linklater, director of such varied beauties as Dazed and Confused, Waking Life, and School of Rock chooses another project out of left field, teaming with the original novelist Eric Schlosser to adapt the screenplay for Fast Food Nation. Having not even thought about reading the book, I can only assume that it dealt more contextually with the seemy underbelly of the American food-making process, as well as the philosophy and psychology of major fast-food marketing. Also, I can surmise that it was better than the movie. Nevertheless, the film deals admirably well with its characters, who are meant to hold a loose affiliation with each other even as their own stories are playing out. They come from all each strata of our modern society, and are thankfully less stereotypes than actual case studies.
Our “hero” is Don Henderson (played here by too-nice niceguy Greg Kinnear), who is a well-to-do suburban father with a “meaty” job as Marketing Director for made-up chain restaurant Mickey’s. When his boss tells him of a worry about “shit in the meat,” he is sent to a rural town on the verge of being suburbanized to investigate the distributor. It is in this town where the convergence of characters takes place.
Don’s odyssey takes him through the meat plant, where a group of fresh Mexican immigrants (note: every movie these days has its own “crossing the border” scene) work for their stay. Among them are Wilmer Valderrama, Catalina Sandino Moreno, and Ana Claudia Talancon, who collectively represent the plight of the Mexican laborer in a dangerous, unfamiliar workforce that sits right under Don’s nose. He goes to a local Mickey’s, where he meets a few “just until college” white kids making their bucks. Ashley Johnson (the daughter from What Women Want) and Paul Dano (Little Miss Sunshine) are the principals here, in what I saw as a well played storyline about the tenuous balance of individuality and a world of masses. Don visits a few others, a surly rancher (Kris Kristofferson) upset by the encroachment of big business, a Buckingham soldier-like assistant manager (Esai Morales), and a cynical dollar-eyed meat-packing advocate (yeah, Bruce Willis!). He meets them, and then disappears, not to be seen again, as the horrorshow plays out.
The last thirty minutes of Fast Food Nation are designed to stir up anger about the unsanitary conditions in these plants, as well as drum up the message of animal rights. But the crux of the film, mostly embodied by the teenage Mickey’s employees, is not about how the fast-food industry sucks. It is about how life sucks, especially if you lay down and let it steamroll you. We drive through our cities every day, seeing things we wish we could change, if only we had the time or inclination. The message I got from this film was that these towns, all slowly becoming the same, are reflective of ourselves. We are being fitted for our mid-level jobs, put in clothes that have been pre-measured to convey our “distinct personalities,” and sold freedom and self-expression with our to-go orders. It sucks, and the only thing we can do, as one character played by Ethan Hawke alludes to, is hold on to the things we really want, and not ever let them go. If we do, we fall straight into the abyss of utter worthlessness.
The disc has little in the way of interesting tidbits. In fact, the extras do more to marginalize the content of the film than anything else. The film is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround, and features English, Spanish, and French subtitles for some reason.
The audio commentary is provided by Schlosser and Linklater, who spend much of it pretending to go off-the-cuff silly about the “real problems” the film itself is trying to discuss. Throughout the commentary, I noticed from the match-ups between the dubbed dialogue of the filmmakers and the actual film dialogue that there were certain characters’ lines that were meant to be emphasized, as though the actors were speaking to us from the writers’ mouths. Ethan Hawke’s cameo does it most, but it is easy to notice when something was said that was a bullet point from the novel.
The Making Of featurette echoes the same sentiments, with personal testimonials from writers, producers, and actors alike about the affront that working in a meat-packing plant truly is. Their “I’ll never eat fast food again” declarations ring false after so long. A Photo Gallery is unimpressive, as it always is, focusing on happy families eating fast food and the film’s cast looking scornfully at us for not mocking them.
The rest of the extras, entitled “The Meatrix vols. I-II ½ ,” and “The Backwards Hamburger” are just unfunny animated skits of a barnyard version of “The Matrix.” Along the way, Moo-pheus (no, I’m not kidding) finds time to tell us some eerie facts about our food and our hypocritical wage system that we hopefully will be able to digest. The facts are headache-inducing, making me wonder when the upper class might get tired of screwing everyone, but the spoofy device that put them there is banal and stupid. I mean come on, Chicken-y in place of Trinity? Lame.
Overall, the DVD is an enjoyable experience wrapped in a conscience-placating life lesson. If I feel like a burger, I’ll get it, and probably not shed a tear, but if somebody let me into the home of a fast-food CEO, I would definitely steal some stuff.