by Scott Mendelson
In food terms, Fast Food Nation the book is a nutritious and delicious meal, full of nutrients and fresh ingredients, lovingly and carefully prepared by the finest and friendliest staff. Fast Food Nation the movie is a cheap, artery clogging value meal, not naturally tasty and not terribly appetizing; seemingly thrown together by uncaring and underpaid employees. The book is an Allen Brothers fillet mignon. The movie is a McMuffin.
The book in question is Eric Schlosser's 2001 best-selling expose of America's fast food industry and the many parts of life that it directly and indirectly affects. Released to great fanfare and critical acclaim, the book is a sprawling and intricately detailed examination of the various facets of America's fast food enterprises. Along with Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel And Dimed, it is one of the best non-fiction volumes of this decade.
But it is not written as prose, so the likely avenue for adaptation would be a documentary. Director Richard Linklater has chosen to make a fiction film, but it is a misfire of the highest order. The major issue is the choices that Linklater makes in regards to what aspects of the book to use. Much of the most interesting and worthwhile pieces of the original text are ignored in favor of a generic intertwining storyline.
The first (and best) story concerns an executive at the fictional Mickey's burger chain. After tests prove that meat coming out of a major Colorado packing plant contains animal feces, Don Henderson (Greg Kinnear, again proving that he's the finest talk-show host turned actor in the history of the medium) is sent to investigate. This brings him in contact with various people in the town, including an old farmer (Kris Kristofferson) who represents how things 'used to be done', and a slick but realistic representative of the meat factory (Bruce Willis).
Unfortunately, this amusing and entertaining story, which deals in detail with several of the more important ideas from the book, literally disappears for the second half of the film, leaving us with two far lesser narratives, one of which barely touches upon the book. That story concerns a high school girl who works at the local restaurant. Inspired by her uncle (Ethan Hawke) to do something more with her life, she eventually joins up with a group of incompetent animal rights protesters. And that's about it for a third of the film. The conclusion of her arc is mildly amusing, but it feels as if Linklater is apologizing for the progressive left-wing nature of his story by showing those who take action as moronic misguided youth.
The third major narrative concerns several illegal immigrants who sneak into the country and end up working for the offending meat plant. Readers of The Jungle will be displeased to notice that the conditions of meat-plants and their employees has not improved all that much. There, the employees are subject to meager wages, long hours of backbreaking and gruesome labor, constant sexual harassment, and utter and complete disregard for their well-being. While tragic, the film treats this as a new and shocking concept.
Linklater has taken a detailed and intricate study and presented only the most obvious and localized concepts (as if only this small Colorado town is affected). What, you mean fast food isn't made under the best conditions and large corporations have badly hurt the family farm? What, you mean fast food restaurants employ young people and don't pay them all that well, inspiring feelings of uselessness and resentment among said employees? And illegal immigrants are often mistreated on the job and screwed out of their share? And, 'most shocking' of all, Linklater ends the film with a montage of the process of animals being killed and sliced up at the plant, with footage that serves no purpose other than to shock in the most pandering fashion.
Schlosser's book was far smarter, using these obvious points as a jumping point to discuss an entire society addicted to food that they know is terrible for them. Despite being R-rated, Fast Food Nation rarely rises above the level of grade-school discourse. In fact, it is far outclassed by Super Size Me, a 2004 documentary that deals with much of the material in a smarter and more entertaining fashion. That Linklater chose not to make a documentary should not be held against him. His sin was to make a boring and unintelligent fictional film based on such smart material. rarely rises above the level of grade-school discourse.