Monday, July 9, 2007

Fast Food Nation (2006)

Director: Richard Linklater

“Do you want lies with that?” was one of the taglines for this film. This couldn’t be more misleading. Richard Linklater is probably one of my favorite directors working today. His films are usually thought provoking, refreshingly original, and filled with great dialogue that only Linklater could've written. That’s why I was intrigued by the idea of him making a dramatized adaptation of Eric Schlosser’s non-fiction, bestselling book of the same name. But this film was very disappointing to me. Roger Ebert says that (I’m paraphrasing) the degree of how good a movie is in the difference between what it was setting out to accomplish, and what actually results in the final product. This is the criteria I like to use as well. So if a director wanted to create a goofy and fun children’s movie, you shouldn’t criticize its plot for not perfectly making sense. It was supposed to be silly, and it doesn’t really matter if it fails to connect all the plot points, as long as it entertains the children it was trying to entertain. The down side of this is when a film like “Fast Food Nation” makes a bold attempt at painting the entire fast food industry in a negative light (not hard to do, of course), and never comes close to building a case that wasn't built already.
I think there's a pretty huge chasm between what the mission statement was, and what ended up on screen. This film works much better as an indictment of the American job industry as a whole, rather than specifically the food industry. This ends up being disappointing when it builds up to a nearly impossible scene to watch, where they film on the actual killing floor of a slaughterhouse. I thought it was really brave to depict, or rather, actually show the real goings-on of one of these plants. Yes, it’s hard to watch and it looks like a real-life version of “Hostel”, but it’s a groundbreaking thing to put into a film. The problem is that it doesn’t fit into the rest of the movie, and comes off as almost exploitative. That scene deserves a much better story, and it almost would’ve worked better in Morgan Spurlock’s brilliant documentary “Super Size Me”, where the identical topics (plus many more) are explored much more in depth, and to much greater effect. Another problem is that this film is filled with great actors, but they end up crowding each other, leaving little room for performances. I wouldn't have cared about that so much, except for the fact that this was supposed to be a dramatized version. No character development = no drama. Greg Kinnear plays a marketing executive for the fictional fast food chain, "Mickey’s" (Get it? Thought you did). Bruce Willis plays another, more corrupt businessman, and Wilmer Valderrama plays an illegal alien hired to work in the slaughterhouse. This film wants to intertwine their lives, but never does. Nor does it show off the characters needed for this film, due to its needlessly fragmented style. It's constantly moving, but it moves just before we can really get involved in a scene or character. There’s basically too much fat in this movie -- how ironic.
Anyway, I started off this review by quoting the tagline. “Do you want lies with that?” implies that there’s some big conspiracy going on, and the film almost stands firmly behind this idea, even though they don't offer any good evidence. When Greg Kinnear’s character, Don, finds out there’s a possible contamination problem in one of Mickey’s meat plants, he’s quickly dispatched to find out what’s going on. Well, no one was lying to him. He goes there to find the plant running smoothly and immaculately clean. It turns out he didn’t get to see “the killing floor” on the tour, but what did he expect happened there? Obviously the cows are killed -- they didn’t commit suicide conveniently near a meat grinder. It’s absolutely immoral and cruel (which doesn’t seem like a strong enough word here) the way these animals are treated. But if people know this already, I’m not sure what they would get out of this movie. Everybody knows more or less what goes on at these places, but it’s shocking to actually see it. That’s why I wished that it would’ve felt appropriate in a film that tries to dramatize the events, but never develops its characters believably or in an original way. If they had free range to create a story around this concept, they should have spent more time on the characters than on the overused clichés about what really goes on behind the counter.

The area that I wish they had explored more would be the effects the work industry in general has on our everyday lives. It felt like they wanted to, and there were hints of something much deeper below the surface, but they were too closely tied to indicting this one specific fictional fast food chain. And that was the whole point of the film; to use one company, and burn it as an effigy. Well, this may sound weird, but the food industry didn’t come off as bad as I thought it would. There’s terrible things going on, but I just thought, “Yeah, shitty stuff goes on with every company. What reaction are they going for here?” I would like to think that I answered my own question, and that that’s what they wanted to depict -- all businesses are corrupt to some extent, even those preparing our food. But I wish that idea had been utilized or explored more here. It wreaks of self-righteousness, and has no more to say than what we already know. The film wants to juxtapose when it's actually disjointed, and it's pretentious when it wants to be enlightening.
There are two scenes that were salvageable, but get lost in the rest of the picture. One interesting scene is the one between Bruce Willis and Greg Kinnear as Mickey's executives that have different philosophies. They create a real interesting scene where they do something that most movies are too tunnel-visioned to figure out. Both sides of the argument are presented intelligently, and it doesn't simply set up a straw man to get us all on one side. Something that I definitely wasn't expecting from this film, but I should've expected it due to co-writer/director Linklater's resume. The other memorable scene was the one where Don, played by Greg Kinnear, checks out of his hotel. He chats briefly with the girl running the front desk, and it seems as though he’s talking to a robot. It’s not blatantly obvious like the rest of the picture, and Don doesn’t even comment on it. But it looks as though it troubled him on a level that would be hard to even put into words. It hints at a deeper problem of people losing themselves to industrialized form and function, as opposed to what comes naturally. Unfortunately, that theme popped up like it was taunting me. It would rear its head and wink at me, but then quickly disappear before I had a chance to acknowledge it. It was like some twisted game of "Whack-A-Mole" or something. Also, the film is padded with re-hashed political/moral activism that grows tiresome after two hours. My take on this is that the problems in the food industry are a symptom of the disease of a hyper-industrialized society that permeates throughout all companies as they begin to run all by themselves, sort of like HAL from "2001: A Space Odyssey." This film is too naively focused on the symptom to have any time to really say anything worthwhile. So, in conclusion, I WOULD like lies with that, but they're fresh out. So, I guess I’ll just have a diet soda.

P.S. If you’re thinking about watching this film, rent “Super Size Me” first, then you’ll see what a missed opportunity this film was.

1 comment:

Patrick Roberts said...

just watched Fast Food Nation, it's an impactful flick to say the least... earlier today i passed up a sausage mcmuffin because of it.