Thursday, 4 January 2007

Fast Food Nation (2006)

The Big One??! No one said that fast food advertising had to be subtle or tasteful

Fast Food Nation: The dark side of the American meal was an incredibly dense book at 400 pages, making frequent detours to comment on American history, the military-industrial complex, the rise of the automobile, the strategy of advertising fast food, Disney, and even the economics of school cafeteria lunches. With its occasionally shrill denunciations of just about everything, you might forget, in the middle of a long paragraph, that the book is ultimately an expose of the fast food industry. One could imagine that a movie adaptation of the book would be a pugnacious creature, combining the conspiracy theories of Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 with the strident capitalist proselytising of The Corporation and the horror movie disguised as a fast food documentary style of Supersize Me. One could imagine that if this book were make into a movie, it would cause people to renounce capitalism and meat, or laugh at its over-the-top liberal posturing.

Thankfully, none of this happens, because Richard Linklater pares down the intellectually stimulating but overcomplicated and wild-eyed morass into a manageable film. In Fast Food Nation the movie, Linklater keeps the action firmly focussed on the fast food industry, dividing the action between 3 main characters employed by the fictional Mickey’s Burgers (surely a stand-in for MacDonald’s?). It’s a neat idea, having each character ‘tell’ one part of the process that brings the cow to your tray, from the actual slaughtering and meat processing to the marketing, and the actual counter sales. Very Altmanesque too, with the random coincidence that push the characters into each other at least once in the film.

As the story begins, there’s a slight problem with the fast food Mickey’s, despite its recent record-breaking new burger campaign: in a top secret meeting with the CEO, hotshot VP of marketing Don (Greg Kinnear) is told that some tests carried out by high school students have unearthed high levels of shit in the meat, and appointed to travel to what I call “Ulutown”, home to the UniGlobe meat processing plant to unearth the truth. His story is done in an almost noir style: every visit he takes to the plant reveals nothing wrong, yet every industry insider he interviews insists there is something seriously wrong with the slaughtering process (“But did they show you the slaughtering room? No? Then they didn’t show you anything!”), and advise him to keep quiet about it. And of course he keeps quiet, even though he is completely disquieted by the revelations, which may or may not amount to anything at all.

Perhaps there isn’t any real dirt at the meat plant, and maybe it’s the bored and passively hostile bunch of high school students working at the behind the counters and in the kitchens of Mickey’s all around the country? Unlike her friends and colleagues, who relieve their anger onto beef patties, Amber (Ashley Johnson) is like a Gilmore Girl: very sensible, the more pragmatic of the mother-daughter pair, and driven to existential angst from the dead-end prospects in Ulutown. She’s almost like a female George Bailey, in other words. That’s until she joins the Cow Liberation Front after being influenced by her hippy uncle (played by Ethan Hawke), who together with Kris Kristofferson, function as mouthpieces for the author’s anti-corporate, anti-authoritarian jaunts. The funny thing (aside from the hilarity that ensues when the Cow Liberation Front begins its activities) is Richard Linklater manages to keep a level hand on the till, turning the (perhaps necessary) Jeremiads by Kristofferson and Hawke into very amusing tall tales, blunting the social activism of their speeches through his humorous treatment while sharpening the social satire of all liberal and corporate positions.

However mildly informative and entertaining the proceedings of Don and Amber, it is the story of the Mexican illegal immigrants working at the plant that move the entire movie beyond a simple polemics of corporate greed and rural disaffection, and unify and resort the stories into a meditation on the alienation of the human. Like Don and Amber, Sylvia (Catalina Sandino Moreno) and her friends are essentially nice people who are forced to make certain compromises in their search for happiness, find themselves gradually corrupted by those compromises, and crushed little by little, by the processes of work and life – which ultimately have very little to do with the contaminated meat.

Indeed, Richard Linklater’s best touch in the movie is in its ending scene, where a certain character realises her absolute moral and spiritual degradation. It’s a slow buildup from the start of the movie, and yet when it occurs, it hits you square in the face: not so because of its visceral quality, or that anything shocking and perverse has happened, but you will be impressed by how the director manages to bring out the sense of hopelessness by resorting to mundane visual elements (unlike say, Aronovsky’s schlocky ending in Requiem for a Dream).

Those expecting and demanding the film to be a denunciation of fast food may be disappointed at Linklater’s treatment. On the other hand, if you’re tired of preachy films, you’ll be surprised that the director does not attempt to convert anyone to vegetarianism, but rather to show the little tragedies born out of everyday acquiescence and compromise.

First published at incinemas on 4 January 2007

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. Evidently it is worth passing up fast food for more than health reasons.