Richard Linklater's Fast Food Nation Lives Up To Its Cheap And Unhealthy Title
You can follow a simple rule to determine the quality of a new Richard Linklater movie. If Linklater himself writes the script from an original idea, you've very probably got a winner on your hands along the lines of Slacker, Dazed and Confused, or Waking Life; if Linklater's working from someone else's script (SubUrbia, Tape) or co-writes the script (Newton Boys), expect major problems. But wait: Over the promising first 20 minutes of Fast Food Nation, co-written by Linklater and Eric Schlosser from Schlosser's nonfiction book of the same name, it feels certain you've got the exception to the Linklater rule on your hands.
Good God, no. The excruciating 90-some minutes that follow are the cinematic equivalent of Linklater stepping to the plate, spitting, adjusting his crotch, pointing with his Louisville Slugger toward the home-run fence--and then fouling out on a bunt attempt.
What went wrong? Schlosser's incisive book made Americans think about what they eat and how it gets from the factory farm to plates more than any book since The Jungle, sparking a much-needed public debate about food politics. While an exhaustively researched piece of nonfiction, the best-selling book also provided a juicy array of characters for Linklater: callous CEOs, pissed-off burger flippers, brutally exploited Mexican slaughterhouse employees, and all-American, anti-corporate cattle ranchers--in other words, the perfect template for Linklater to graft his gazillion-character, rambling-dialogue-heavy approach to a multileveled narrative exploration of a single theme ŕ la Altman or Sayles.
Fast Food Nation honors that expectation as it introduces its principal characters. Mickey's Burgers executive Don Anderson (Greg Kinnear) is dispatched to a small Colorado town to find out why his chain's hugely popular new sandwich, the Big One, keeps testing positive for unusually high levels of fecal matter. Meanwhile, tough-talking Mexican cowboy Benny (Luis Guzmán) smuggles another van-load of human cargo, including the beautiful but naive Sylvia (Maria Full of Grace's Catalina Sandino Moreno), across the border and into the same town, destined for work in and around the slaughterhouse that generates Big Ones. As Don hits up the local Mickey's and interacts with earnest, chipper clerk Amber (Ashley Johnson)--if not the surly secret-sauce provider Brian (Little Miss Sunshine's Paul Dano), who mans the grill--you're lulled into thinking that Linklater's on his way to doing to fast food what Soderbergh's Traffic wanted to do to the drug war.
Wishful thinking. At first, plot threads just fizzle. Fast generates some genuine suspense early on as the illegal immigrants don white aprons and protective gear for the very first time, foreboding chords sounding on the soundtrack. But Linklater quickly cuts away to the same workers returning home to their loved ones, apparently unaffected by their day of cutting and gutting. Then Don gets a lead about an ornery, fiercely independent cattle rancher who knows about the dark side of the slaughterhouse world--and meets warm, genial Rudy (Kris Kristofferson), a slightly cynical straight shooter who is more than happy to chat.
And then things get very, very bad. Distractingly, celebrities inhabit every role, no matter how minor: Bruce Willis gets a so-so scene as combative Harry, a Mickey's regional exec; Patricia Arquette giggles her way through a few chemistry-free minutes as Amber's mom, Cindy; the wooden Avril Lavigne pops up and sinks as Amber's friend Alice. Midway through the picture, without any unavoidable narrative reason, the only character doing a halfway-decent job of navigating you through this cinematic sinkhole, Kinnear's Don, checks out of his hotel, goes home, and disappears from the movie entirely. As a replacement, you get the uncommonly hyperactive Ethan Hawke, who shows up as Amber's intensely creepy uncle Pete, to deliver the Message--an anti-corporate spiel so didactic that even those who agree with every word will groan through every rankling second.
By the time Linklater finally shows the slaughterhouse's killing floor--the unspeakably bloody mess you knew was coming, far different from the sanitized tour the factory foreman showed Don--there won't be an audience member left awake enough to gasp. Fast Food Nation begins as a taut, thoughtful movie about a serious issue for adults, but ends as a sloppy, ineffective tract aimed at scaring teenagers into becoming vegetarians. If Fast Food Nation, the movie, prompts even a handful of viewers to dig into Fast Food Nation, the book, it's done the world a good turn. But on every other measurable level, it's a stinker.