By Sherrie Li
By Falling James
By Amanda Lewis
By Amy Nicholson
By Amy Nicholson
By Jennifer Swann
By Scott Foundas
By Sherrie Li
It’s a sad fact of life, Don, but we all have to eat a little? shit from time to time.
—Dialogue from Fast Food Nation
There’s cow poop in the meat in Richard Linklater’s Fast Food Nation, and that’s not the only kind of bullshit under the movie’s microscope. Adapted by Linklater and Eric Schlosser from the latter’s best-selling nonfiction survey of America’s $100 billion fast-food industry, Fast Food Nation the movie is a study of contamination in the food chain and in the culture at large, whether the offending microbes spill forth from cattle intestines, the corridors of corporate power or the seat of government. It sees 99-cent hamburgers in much the same way Nashville saw country music — as a conduit into the heart of American life, and as the connective tissue holding together seemingly unrelated ideas about immigration, consumerism, the demise of the counterculture and the rise of strip-mall suburbia.
Fast Food Nation doesn’t retch all over your popcorn à la Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me, and it doesn’t resort to the cynicism and pedantry that are the Achilles’ heels of many a progressive-minded filmmaker. Rather, humanism and understanding are the order of the day as Linklater and Schlosser trace a serpentine fast-food chain that begins with Mexican illegals (one of them played by Maria Full of Grace star Catalina Sandino Moreno) crossing the Texas border, winds through the Anaheim boardroom of a thinly veiled McDonald’s surrogate (called Mickey’s), and ends up in a Colorado meatpacking plant where the conveyor belts are stained with blood both human and bovine.
To be sure, Linklater and Schlosser are alarmed by what they see, and they want us to be too. But like the film’s grizzled rancher (beautifully played by Kris Kristofferson), whose grandfather fought the meatpackers — and lost — and who now watches helplessly as his land is gobbled up by an encroaching tract-house expanse, they’re honest about the difficulty of effecting real change in the capitalist machine and reluctant to point the finger of blame. You’d be hard-pressed, in fact, to find another movie this season with more ethically conflicted characters, whether it’s the Mickey’s marketing exec (Greg Kinnear) who peddles artery-clogging junk to the youth of America as a way of supporting his own nuclear family. Or the bright-eyed Colorado teen (Ashley Johnson) who takes a part-time job behind the Mickey’s counter because, well, it was the first one that came along. Or the content, yet disillusioned, former campus radical (Ethan Hawke) who acknowledges that his livelihood as an independent carpenter is largely paid for by those on the wrong side of the income gap. At least they feel conflicted, Linklater seems to be saying, and that’s a start.
Fast Food Nation has a lot on its plate, and sometimes you feel like there must have been a three- or four-hour cut of the movie at some point that took us deeper into each of the competing storylines. As things stand, Kinnear, who may be the most appealing American everyman onscreen right now, checks out of a hotel — and out of the movie — midway through, and his absence is felt. But if Linklater’s film is somewhat shapeless and rough around the edges, it is also, moment by moment, oddly elating, thanks to the intelligence of its script (Linklater remains one of the best dialogue writers in contemporary movies), its inspired casting (especially Kristofferson, and Bruce Willis as a brass-tacks Mickey’s cattle supplier) and its thoughtfulness about how we live life in this country at this particular moment. Like two of the year’s other standout American films, Kelly Reichardt’s Old Joy and Ryan Fleck’s Half Nelson, it’s a movie of ideas in which the ideas flow effortlessly out of the material instead of being plastered on top with a heavy cement roller (as in Crash, Babel and Little Children).
Though Linklater isn’t immune from preaching, Michael Moore–style, to the converted (one line uttered late in the film — “Right now, I can’t think of anything more patriotic than violating the Patriot Act” — could well become a leftist mantra), he’s unusually realistic about the relative ease of thinking oneself an idealist and the relative difficulty of putting idealism into practice. Which is why I suspect a great many viewers of Fast Food Nation (this critic included) may flee the movie’s end-credits slaughterhouse montage swearing off fast food (if not all meat products) only to find themselves in the drive-thru line less than 24 hours later, in the midst of some hectic scramble from their suburban tract homes to their jobs in corporate America. So it’s fitting that one of the last things we see in the film is a herd of Mickey’s cattle standing still in their pen after a cabal of earnest, young ecoterrorists have attempted to set them free. Linklater and Schlosser have cut the fence too. Now, will any of us inside take note?
The good news is that Christopher Guest (Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show, A Mighty Wind) has co-written and directed a sharp, stingingly honest satire about the movie business — about the rampant insecurity and egoism, the aversion to originality and risk, the perverse pleasure taken in others’ misfortunes, and the speed with which you can become the very person you said you never would. The bad news is that the movie in question isn’t Guest’s latest, For Your Consideration, but rather his 1989 debut feature, The Big Picture, which told the story of a wide-eyed film-school grad named Nick Chapman (Kevin Bacon) who comes to Tinseltown as the flavor of the month and watches — first in horror and later willingly — as his Bergmanesque chamber drama is transformed into a sun-and-surf beachside romp. Co-written by Guest with Michael Varhol and Michael McKean, that movie (coming three years before The Player) cut so close to the Hollywood bone that then–Columbia Pictures president Dawn Steel tried to coerce Guest into abandoning the project and, upon its completion, promptly buried it.
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