Fast Food Nation (Fox Searchlight, R)

If Richard Linklater can't make a good film out of an unlikely source for a fiction film, no one can. As it turns out, no one can.

 

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Apparently ideas for movies are so scarce these days that any book that hits the best-seller chart can reasonably be expected to be turned into star-laden film a year or two down the line. It doesn't seem to matter whether the book is fiction or nonfiction, or even if it is non-narrative. Generally, obvious cash-ins are to be ignored, but when a filmmaker as vital as Richard Linklater (Dazed and Confused, Before Sunset) tackles a project such as this, it is worth the time to sit up and take notice. And at least in the case of Fast Food Nation, Linklater is backed by a team of very good actors (everyone from Maria Full of Grace's Catalina Sandino Moreno to Bruce Willis), and the screenplay was co-adapted by Linklater himself and the author of the book, Eric Schlosser. So, if Linklater and his team can't make a good film out of an unlikely source for a fiction film, no one can. As it turns out, no one can.

Fast Food Nation follows the Stephen Gaghan method (Traffic, Syriana) of screenwriting-overlapping plotlines following many characters involved in the disparate jobs in a single field. In this case, those positions spin off primarily from the story of Don Henderson (Greg Kinnear), a corporate executive at Mickey's, a fast food restaurant chain known for a sandwich called "The Big One" (see what Linklater and Schlosser did there?) who goes to the slaughterhouses when he is told that traces of fecal matter are being found in the company's meat. From him the film finds its way into the lives of immigrant workers in said slaughterhouse to regular, well-meaning young employees of the chain's individual branches, and everyone in between.

The problems with Fast Food Nation are many: It is a nonsensical, sloppy mess, there are too many characters crammed into the film's short running time, Morgan Spurlock's Super Size Me covered pretty much the same topic via the more appropriate means of the documentary format and made a much more entertaining and important film in the process, etc. It often feels like Linklater himself knows that his film isn't working, and perhaps that is why he puts what feels like what should be one of the more important and memorable scenes toward the end of the movie, as if as a means to salvage the film in the final moments: real footage of cows being slaughtered in a slaughterhouse. But even this scene reeks of familiarity to the well-versed moviegoer, as it is an easily recognizable reference to Rainer Werner Fassbinder's 1978 film In a Year With 13 Moons, where almost identical footage was used much more devastatingly (if you pick up Fantoma's 2004 release on DVD, you can actually watch an intro to the movie by Linklater himself, who makes mention of the scene in question). Funny that a film that wasn't even trying to send up any sort of food industry offhandedly makes an infinitely more impressionable scene than a film where that is the main goal, but that is indicative of the problem here: Fast Food Nation tries too hard.

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