The Good: Generally informative, Decent acting
The Bad: None of the characters pop, Message becomes overbearing, Overreaches itself
The Basics: Fast Food Nation fails to balance well between a documentary's informativeness and a sense of entertainment, resulting in an underwhelming viewing experience.
I cannot recall the last film I sat and watched where my reaction to it was that it was too ambitious, though I occasionally run into a movie where the writer and/or director attempts to take on a bit too much for the time frame. Bobby might have been the last movie where there was just one too many plot/character threads. Far too often, my problem is not that a movie is too ambitious, but rather that it does not try hard enough. It's a rare thing when a movie can manage to be both too full with plots or characters and also predictable (which is almost always one of the chief difficulties with a film that's not ambitious enough), yet Fast Food Nation manages to do that. Fast Food Nation is a broad work that explores the cattle processing plants and fast food industry in a Colorado city with a storytelling angle, as opposed to a documentary style.
Raul, his wife and her sister are Mexicans who cross into the United States illegally. Raul soon gets a job working at the local meat processing plant cleaning up the kill floor. His sister in law works in the same factory, mostly getting high and having sex with a supervisor there. Meanwhile, Amber, one of the workers at the local fast food establishment which is home to the Big One, becomes disenchanted with her job and falls in with a group of college students who are working to fight the powers of the fast food industry.
Enter Don Anderson, head of marketing for that company who is sent out to Colorado when his company faces a marketing nightmare: some college students tested some of the frozen burgers and found they were high in . . . . feces. Mmmm, yum. Don is sent to find out what the problem is and he essentially discovers that the problems are systemic and the viewer is treated to a series of lessons on where exactly the meat in fast food patties comes from and why they are so inexpensive for his company.
The problem with Fast Food Nation as an entertainment piece is that it is far too erratic and preachy to be genuinely entertaining. Sure, there's the cameo from Avril Lavigne as the disenchanted college student (which is pretty much her public persona anyway) and there's the surprise appearance of Bruce Willis midway through the picture, but outside moments like that, the film suffers because it is trying to tell far too many stories and the result is none of them get told very well.
Take, for example, the saga of Don. Don begins to learn the realities of the meat-packing industry, from the use of illegal immigrants in the factories to the presence of fecal matter in the meat. When he is disturbed by the revelations made to him, his contacts within the company simply respond that "they are fine if you cook them!" He is outraged, as writer/director Richard Linklater no doubt intends the audience to be. Don leaves the film about halfway through with a sense of indignation and the plan to risk his life, wellbeing and career to stand up for what is right. As the closing credits begin rolling, his story is simply resolved with a scene that completely lacks any real sense of resolution because it robs the viewer of his character struggle and process between where he left the movie and where he pops back up.
Similarly, while the movie starts with a strong presence of Raul and his journey, he and his family exit the movie for most of the beginning and middle so that Don can have his story. By the time we revisit Raul, we do not genuinely care about his struggle. And watching him and his family devolve into drug addicts and the miseries of whoredom becomes something of a pointless exercise. Why? Because by the point in the movie when Raul's story becomes front and center again, it is pretty much to be predicted what will happen with him and his wife.
Part of the problem is certainly structural. In the first half of the film, Don is given a great deal of information. Don is told about the various evils of the meat packing industry and all of the terrible things that he is not being shown until he cannot even eat his company's product. The viewer gets it. There's a lot of exposition, there are a lot of people telling Don (and the audience) just what the stakes of the game are. We get it. The latter half of the film, with Raul, simply shows virtually everything that the viewer has already been told.
So the movie has a sense of being more multiple personalities than a rich tapestry. Amber's story seems almost redundant and pointless for the brief time she is focused on. The problem here is that Fast Food Nation makes the argument that there are systemic problems in the food supply, but illustrates no genuine hope for changing it. In fact, it does just the opposite. Amber and her friends are completely ineffectual.
As a result, most of the character quickly begin to feel like "types" as opposed to individuals. Don is a pretty generic cog in the machine suit who learns the evils of the world he works in and is faced with a decision about what to do about that. Raul is the immigrant everyman whose life is turned upside down b moving to the United States where every argument for a better life is gutted as he becomes a drug addict and his wife decides she will do anything to make money for their family. It's a pretty predictable storyline and in the absence of real characters, the film suffers and begins to take on the feel of a lecture.
Indeed, on DVD, Fast Food Nation is a virtual baseball bat to beat the viewer over the head with information. The bonus features are almost exclusively reiterations of the arguments contained in the film. One of them, "The Backwards Burger" animated short, traces the process of making fast food meat patties back from the burger to the cow and basically acts as an educational substitute for the two hour film. It's about as entertaining as Fast Food Nation ultimately is.
What the movie does have going for it, in place of entertainment, is the presence of actors who are acting well. Greg Kinnear does well as Don, taking his enthusiastic smile and slowly working it away as his character takes in the information being thrown at him. Wilmer Valderrama is completely convincing as Raul and he holds the viewer's attention quite well in all of his scenes.
But ultimately, the enlightenment that one receives from Fast Food Nation might be better gotten from a documentary, like Super Size Me (reviewed here!) and the entertainment value is not on par with similar movies, like Thank You For Smoking (reviewed here!). Instead, there is so much going on that none of it is well developed and despite seeing actors in very different roles, none of the roles here are particularly great. The result is a thoroughly average film.
For other works with Luis Guzman, please be sure to check out my reviews of:
He’s Just Not That Into You
Waiting . . .
For other movie reviews, please be sure to visit my index page on the subject by clicking here!
© 2012, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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