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Hardened Arteries and Empty Calories

Wheres the beef? (Photo by Matt Lankes)

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.

For Your Consideration, by contrast, doesn’t risk ruffling any feathers, and that’s exactly what’s wrong with it: It’s less a satirical bite at the hand that feeds Guest than it is a toothless nibble, and it isn’t particularly funny. Working in his customarily loose, semi-improvisational style (the actors were reportedly given a 27-page treatment co-authored by Guest and Eugene Levy), Guest here wants to do for Hollywood’s annual awards season what Best in Show did for the kennel-club set. He wants to show us how the already self-perpetuating absurdity of people ensconced in the industry bubble ratchets up to epic proportions when little gold statuettes are on the line. And I don’t know many who would deny that Guest has hit upon a rich subject, at a time when seemingly every movie released between Labor Day and Christmas arrives wreathed in some kind of Oscar “buzz” and when Harvey Weinstein continues to take Academy Award campaigning/whoring to new levels of shamelessness. (Case in point: The newspaper ads for Weinstein’s latest would-be thoroughbred, the Emilio Estevez–directed Bobby, which tout the film’s win of an ensemble-acting award at the recent Hollywood Film Festival ­— a festival at which Bobby did not even screen.)

But that Hollywood bears scant resemblance to the one on display in For Your Consideration, which sets its sights on an independent movie that becomes the subject of unexpected hype when its has-been leading actress (Catherine O’Hara) is mentioned as an Oscar contender by an Ain’t It Cool News–type Web site. The movie is called Home for Purim, and it follows an estranged family as they reunite on that most obscure of Jewish holidays while their terminally ill matriarch (O’Hara) dies slowly and melodramatically in the background. Never mind that even Hollywood, with its bottomless tolerance for cheap sentimentality, effectively stopped making such bold-faced tearjerkers once they became the domain of the Lifetime cable network: Guest seems to expect that we’ll find Purim a real knee-slapper because the family is named Pisher, their dialogue is peppered with “kvelling”s and “mitzvah”s and because the movie’s schlubby director (played by Guest himself) is forever asking for more close-ups of the kugel. Because, well, Jewish people and Yiddish words are just automatically funny, right?

When they’re not giving CPR to borscht-belt shtick that was already on life support back when Mel Brooks was plying it, Guest and Levy lob softballs at controlling studio execs, overeager publicists and clueless celebrity journalists and offer up the sort of “insights” about the vanity of actors, the marginalization of writers and the pointlessness of producers that will seem so five-minutes-ago to anyone who’s ever seen an episode of Extras or Entourage. If Guest had any beitzim, instead of a tradition-of-quality weepy like Home for Purim he’d have made For Your Consideration’s Oscar wannabe the kind of offensively bad movie that actually does get nominated for awards these days — a self-important liberal message picture, or one of those American Beauty–style postmodernist slag heaps that purport to tell us something “revealing” about middle-class life. And instead of the Oscars — the last industry award that actually means something (in terms of box office and career advancement) — the derby at hand would be one of those umpteen other awards shows that seem to crawl out of the woodwork every year and which the studios shill for with nearly equal vigor. The Hollywood Film Festival awards, let’s say.

By now, the members of Guest’s seasoned stock company (including Levy, O’Hara, Jennifer Coolidge, Jane Lynch, Parker Posey and Harry Shearer) are so warmly embraced by the audience that all they have to do is show up to engender a chuckle and a smile. But in movies like Best in Show and A Mighty Wind, we did more than just chuckle and smile — we bought into the characters as real people, no matter how ridiculous they seemed, whereas here, only O’Hara comes close to making an emotional connection, until Guest turns her into an over-the-top Botox-and-silicone caricature near the end. This is the first of Guest’s movies that has felt calculated to me, like it was made not because he had a great idea for a new picture but because he’s become a brand name now and, three years on from A Mighty Wind, the time was nigh for a new product line. I’m not saying that Guest has sold out exactly. But with For Your Consideration, I fear he’s become Nick Chapman.

 

FAST FOOD NATION | Directed by RICHARD LINKLATER | Written by ERIC SCHLOSSER and LINKLATER, based on the book by SCHLOSSER | Produced by JEREMY THOMAS | Released by Fox Searchlight Pictures | Selected theaters

FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION | Directed by CHRISTOPHER GUEST | Written by EUGENE LEVY and GUEST | Produced by KAREN MURPHY | Released by Warner Independent Pictures | ArcLight, AMC Century City, AMC Loews Cineplex Broadway


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