Earlier this year writer/director Richard Linklater attacked America’s Drug War with the animated sci-fi acid trip A Scanner Darkly. With his new film, Fast Food Nation, Linklater delves into another, albeit nowhere near as vilified, vice: America’s eating habits. Even conservative estimates say that every other one of us is overweight, so the topic is ripe for some verbal evisceration, unfortunately Linklater doesn’t quite get us there.
Based on Eric Schlosser’s expose of the fast food industry, Fast Food Nation follows a myriad of characters that are all connected through the chain of restaurants called Mickey’s. (Which bear only a slight resemblance to that other burger chain that starts with M.) It follows a corporate VP (Greg Kinnear) who’s investigating allegations that Mickey’s latest hit burger is being made with dirty meat. He goes to the meat packing plant in Cody, Colorado who swear up and down that there’s no problem on their end despite the fact that they use illegal immigrants and don’t care a whit if they’re well treated or properly trained.
In many ways Fast Food Nation is a plebiscite on the swelling immigration and undocumented worker crisis in the United States. Wilmer Valderrama does tremendous work as Raul, a Mexican that makes the trek to the US and gets a job cleaning up the after-slaughter at the meat packing plant. Raul thinks he’s got it made in the shade, but he doesn’t realize how much he’s being exploited. But the Mexican women working in the plant have it worse as they’re prey to the harassment of Mike, played by the perfectly slimy Bobby Cannavale.
On the other side is a group of college activists led by Andrew and Alice (Aaron Himelstein and Avril Lavigne) who plot to stick it to Mickey’s and the plant. A Mickey’s employee named Amber (Ashley Johnson, formally known as the last Seaver from Growing Pains) gets involved, inspiring the group to try and free the cows at the meat packing plant, with very limited success. Having spent years in and around a university campus, this entire storyline rang hilariously true with the kids’ optimistic, yet wholly misconceived plan to overthrow the evil corporation.
With all these various threads and plots dangling it’d be easy to pair up Fast Food Nation with Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic or Stephen Gaghan’s Syriana. However, this would be a bit of a misnomer because, while the dual issues of obesity and corporate apathy are arguable as big as drugs and oil, you never get the feeling that Linklater is trying to say something about it in this movie. The closet thing to a philosophical argument is Bruce Willis’ cattle supplier remarking that, “We all have to eat s**t from time to time.” Of course, he’s referring specifically to Kinnear’s inquisition, but it can also be about dealing with modern corporations.
The difference is that Soderbergh and Gaghan were both articulate in identifying the nature of the problem and highlighting why current solutions aren’t working. We don’t need Linklater to tell us some corporations don’t care or that many undocumented workers are being exploited within an inch of human rights violations. Obviously you can’t solve the world’s problems in a two-hour movie, but attention should be paid to potential solutions and somehow I don’t think letting cows run free across the plains is one of them.
If there’s one thing that Linklater does admirably, Fast Food Nation is jarring us by saving the most potent of anti-industry messages by taking us onto the killing floor of the slaughterhouse. It’s a scene guaranteed not to make you leave the theatre and go out for a burger afterwards.