FAST FOOD NATION (Richard Linklater, 2006)
It's said that you don't want to watch how sausage gets made. For most, the same probably goes for the process involved in making the hamburger patties sold at fast food restaurants. Eric Schlosser's book FAST FOOD NATION, something of a contemporary companion to Upton Sinclair's 1906 novel THE JUNGLE, gets the fictionalized treatment in director Richard Linklater's film. This tour follows the chain from the illegal immigrants who work at the meat processing plant to the teens slinging burgers and fries and the suits working hard to find ways to sell more of the food.
Fast food chain Mickey's receives bad news. A test shows that too much fecal matter is being found in their burgers. New company VP Don Anderson (Greg Kinnear) is sent to Colorado to root out the cause and remedy the situation. He visits Uni-Globe, which processes all of the meat used in Mickey's top-selling The Big One. The place looks spotless, but as a rancher tell him, if he didn't remember seeing the killing floor, then he didn't get the whole tour.
Uni-Globe employs illegal Mexicans, all in the name of keeping costs low. The work is dirty and smelly, but for Raul (Wilmer Valderrama) and his companions, the pay is better than what they could make at home and is worth the risk of injury, exploitation, or being caught by INS. His wife Sylvia (Catalina Sandino Moreno) has serious reservations about the plant and chooses a lower-paying but less hazardous job as a maid.
Amber (Ashley Johnson) is one of many teenagers whose first job is behind the counter of a burger joint. She works the register at Mickey's without giving much thought to what she's doing. As she searches for answers about her future, Amber begins to question whether she should be working for such a company.
Akin to a socially conscious ensemble film by John Sayles, FAST FOOD NATION takes aim at corporate America moreso than the McDonald's and Burger Kings of the world. Like Linklater's counterculture figures in SLACKER and WAKING LIFE, the characters fear being chewed up by the machine, a concern that is a literal danger for the meat processing workers who lose limbs and digits.
Clearly FAST FOOD NATION'S thesis is that the system is bad for everyone but those at the top raking in money. The food is junk, and the workers are exploited. Despite this viewpoint, Linklater makes efforts to be evenhanded.
In one of the film's best scenes, Bruce Willis turns up as the middle man who negotiates the beef prices for Mickey's with Uni-Globe. He's not shocked by what Don tells him but treats it as part and parcel of the industry. It's not news to him that there are excrement particles in the meat, but what does it matter if the patties are fried so that everything bad gets killed? Today people get freaked out about germs, but at least one study has shown that toilet seats are cleaner than kitchens.
FAST FOOD NATION has an aimless structure that picks up these three primary storylines and some minor ones. Characters disappear for long stretches and sometimes don't return. It doesn't always lead to a good flow. Kinnear's Don is dominant for the first half and then drops out of sight until the start of the end credits. A fast food restaurant robbery thread is introduced but vanishes.
Linklater's body of work shows a love for common people ruminating on the nature of existence. There's plenty of time for armchair philosophizing, not all of which is as enlightened as the characters or filmmakers might believe it to be. For all of FAST FOOD NATION'S sledgehammer evangelizing on the issues, a streak of humor runs through it. Amber's self-discovery is treated with respect, but the collegiate idealists she is attracted to are shown to be foolish, wannabe radicals. This kind of mood lightening is critical to keeping the film from sinking under the weight of its own ideas.
The purpose of FAST FOOD NATION is to inform. This opens it up to criticisms of fingerpointing without providing solutions, although I think it's unfair to expect Linklater and company to solve something as major as how business is conducted in the United States. While I enjoyed seeing how this film fits into the director's oeuvre, it's fair to say that FAST FOOD NATION'S informational function (and ponderousness) will trump entertainment value for most people.