I am a firm believer in movies (and novels, and plays, and indeed all stories) being at their best when saying something. However, I also believe that first and foremost films need to be in service of their story, and story and message represent a difficult balancing act. An otherwise excellent story can easily be sunk by a heavy-handed message, and an important message does not automatically make a film great.
Fast Food Nation is a perfect example. Its message – that McDonald’s, Burger King, et. al. are sustained by a network of tainted beef, appalling slaughter conditions, low wages, and unsafe, blood-splattered factories for its (often migrant) workers – is admirable, and I have no doubt that Eric Schlosser’s non-fiction bestseller (I read Fed Up, an ’80s counterpart, in grade school) makes for compelling reading. But let’s presume the film is after a wide audience (actually, I don’t have to presume: Linklater says in the documentary, “We basically want to make a good movie that will leave people with something to talk about when they go to dinner.”). It doesn’t just want people like me or my friends sitting down to see it, it wants the kind of people who have become overweight spending upwards of $125 billion on the industry to see it. And people like that aren’t going to see it unless they’re interested in the characters and being served a compelling story.
Interlocking, multi-character films with a lesson can be interesting, and they can be even be popular (Traffic made $125 million in 2000), but Fast Food Nation makes the mistake of focusing on its message. Migrants’ sisters and university students will randomly go off on too-articulate tangents about how as the intestines are being pulled out of the cows their feces occasionally land in the burgers, and how the feces that don’t end up in the burgers end up in the water supply. The film ostensibly follows three sets of characters: a marketing executive (Greg Kinnear) for a fictional fast-food chain called Mickey’s, a set of illegal Mexican immigrants (led by Wilmer Valderrama, Fez from That 70s Show, Maria Full of Grace’s Catalina Sandino Moreno, and relative unknown Ana Claudia Talancón), and a high school student (veteran voice actress but relative face-acting newcomer Ashley Johnson) caught in the minimum wage cycle.
But throughout the stories, others show up (the university students admired by Johnson; the sister of a meat packing worker, and later a cattle farmer, played by Kris Kristofferson, speaking to Kinnear) to deliver their lectures – and what does it tell you about the characters? Nothing. It tells you they hate fast food, but that’s about it. They hate fast food, and… nothing. The university students don’t really exist for any reason other than to provide a cameo for Avril Lavigne, and lead Johnson to a cattle ranch (which accomplishes nothing, other than showing us a cattle ranch). The characters Kinnear meets exist only to disgust him. Eric Schlosser (who conceived the film and cowrote the screenplay) isn’t a screenwriter, and it shows. His devices for communicating his information come off as perfunctory. And cowriter/director Richard Linklater, while used to big casts, isn’t used to peddling researched information while telling his stories. They come out as heavy-handed, and the film comes off as a thinly fictionalized diatribe. If you didn’t know this stuff you’ll learn plenty, but the people most likely to sit through it have already been converted.
The lack of professionalism in the screenplay is astounding. Kinnear starts off as the main character, then disappears in the second half of the movie. A pair of Johnson’s coworkers (played by unknown Matt Hensarling and Little Miss Sunshine‘s Paul Dano) talk about a string of robberies, and then about pulling one, but it doesn’t go anywhere. The migrant story is occasionally interesting (like many immigrants they’re abused by a foreman, played by Bobby Cannavale, who is himself an immigrant), but ultimately comes off as too melodramatic. The film is at its best when depicting Johnson’s bland, American middle-class existence, and during its memorable cameos, including Kristofferson, Luis Guzman, Patricia Arquette (as Johnson’s mother), Ethan Hawke (as Johnson’s uncle), and Bruce Willis.
Extras include a telling, 55-minute documentary where Linklater continually pays lip service to his intent to tell a good story (these characters, he says, would be doing what they’re doing whether the film was against fast food or not, while Schlosser says the intent was to “take the book and put it aside”), but the cast and crew keep talking about how eye-opening the experience was and how horrible they realized the fast-food industry is. The writer/director commentary is more interesting than the movie; Linklater seems tickled by dropped opportunities such as the robbery (and personally I would have liked to see his “David Lynch opening,” which would have zoomed into the microbes infesting a yummy-looking burger).
At one point they wonder how many people will remember the secretary who shows up in the beginning when it’s later revealed the president of Mickey’s is having an affair with her, and agree the audience won’t. And that’s the problem.