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Fast Food Nation
Richard Linklater

Iona Firouzabadi
posted 15 May 2007

Richard Linklater’s new film Fast Food Nation is a slice of American life. There are grungy teenagers, old–time ranchers, hip students, single moms, border-hopping Mexicans and Bruce Willis - delivering a full-fat-mayo cameo. But Bruce’s few minutes of screen time are the only super-size element of a movie that feels more skinny-latte than big-mac. Where Eric Schlosser’s 2001 non-fiction book Fast Food Nation packed a gut-punch, Linklater’s fictional film, co-written with Schlosser, is digressive, discursive and didactic. These are the reasons why it fails, but curiously they’re also the things that make it interesting.

Via the three main narratives and his trademark use of rhetoric over plot, Linklater serves up a very real and recognisable nation - a food chain of employment. He gives us the economic immigrants from Mexico whose Hispanic culture is rapidly shifting the demographics of American society. He gives us the teenagers from dead-end towns, whose work lives and social lives take place under the fluro-tubes of fast food outlets. And he gives us blue-eyed Don Anderson (Greg Kinnear). Don works in marketing for the appositely named ‘Mickey’s’, a fictional fast-food chain that is generic and bland enough to be utterly believable. Don is similarly mass-produced - he’s a good Dad (he reads bed-time stories to his sons) but he’s human (he watches pay-per-view porn on business trips). His CEO sends Don to the cattle-country of Cody, Colorado, to investigate the suspicion that ‘there’s shit in the meat’. Pleasant, polite, liberal-leaning and slightly naïve, he’s genuinely shocked by what he discovers. But he’s not a hero. He’s not the kind of guy who’s going to change the world. Don cares about having a good, well paid job and about looking after his family. He’s a citizen of the atomised society - Thatcher would be proud of him. But one of the curious things about Linklater’s film is that it doesn’t judge Don.

So what’s going on? Well, despite the film’s didacticism, it isn’t a left-wing polemic. It’s a riff on the book - not a celluloid equivalent of it. It’s not an expose, jumping up and down and shouting fuck-you-sue-me at McDonalds. In fact it’s a film whose argument has more in common with Fritz Lang’s Metropolis than with the work of Michael Moore: what Linklater’s exploring is that we’re all part of the Machine. Yes, the food is factory farmed and factory processed, but this isn’t just a film about the Fast Food, it’s more about the Nation – which is increasingly a factory product too. The Cody hotel Don stays in has all the charm and individuality of a vacuum-packed cut of meat. The teenagers at Mickey’s deliver corporate phrases along with the trays of food. They wear corporate uniforms and name badges that paradoxically strip them of their identity. What Linklater seems to pine for is a different vision of America: a nation whose character is part cowboy, part hippy - but either way a nation that doesn’t wear a suit and sit in marketing meetings. As in his glorious Dazed and Confused, there’s a certain romantic nostalgia for a time when greed wasn’t good.

What stops that being a Liberal wet dream? Well, nothing – except this isn’t a film that sets up a left-right divide, it’s one that deals with a more essential, American kind of Liberalism - the kind the country was born out of in the first place. As rancher Rudy (Kris Kristofferson) says, 'This isn't about good people versus bad people. This is about the machine that's taken over '.

Fast Food Nation is a film that tries to show us how people live inside a factory-processed world and at times it does this brilliantly. It gives us a beautifully believable family portrait in fun single mom Cindy (Patricia Arquette), studious daughter and Mickey’s worker Amber (Ashley Johnson) and rebellious, freethinking uncle Pete (Ethan Hawke). And it’s a film that’s not afraid to put a persuasive pro-meat industry argument in the eternally charismatic, burger-chewing mouth of Bruce Willis (founding father of Planet Hollywood) - further collapsing the possibility of this being a leftist rant.

But there are some bad chunks of casting and writing. Avril Lavigne, as a well meaning but clueless student environmentalist, displays the lack of acting ability you’d expect from a pop star. Her hair, however, seems to be auditioning for a leading role in a Cher video and probably deserves its own titles credit. Sylvia (Catalina Sandino Moreno) is a stereotypically miserable and blighted immigrant, and the film’s final scene has her descend to a level of mawkish victim-hood that manages to be both cringe-worthy and dull.

And that’s the main difficulty: this film is just a bit boring and a bit patronising. Where Schlosser’s book was a rigorous and radical piece of investigative journalism, the film he has authored with Linklater is a rambling musing on the idea of the human factory, with the characters too often coming across as thinly veiled ciphers for essayistic perspectives. Though it’s intriguing and refreshing not to be dished a unified, absolutist morality, Fast Food Nation feels watered down and freeze-dried. If you want to learn about the horrors of the meat industry, read the book. If you want a great comment on the pre-packaged society rent American Beauty.

 

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