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Fast Food Nation

dir: Richard Linklater
[img_assist|nid=874|title=Eat death, Ronnie|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=332|height=500]
It hurts to say it, but Fast Food Nation is not a good movie. At its best, it is depressing, and at its worst it is glib and superficial. Which is a real shame, because it is about a very important subject.

Eric Schlosser wrote an article for Rolling Stone magazine back in the 90s. It was an expose on the American fast food industry, covering everything from the unhealthy quality of the food, to America’s obsession with the stuff, to the exploitation of migrant and teenage labour and the marketing of products to the most vulnerable consumers: children. It was expanded into a book, which exists as a scathing indictment of a system that allows consumers to be exposed to such crap, literally, because it’s economical, it’s everywhere and people are lazy.

You would wonder how or why someone would decide to make a movie out of the book, as opposed to a documentary, but the advantages are pretty obvious. More people are likely to see a movie at the cinema than they are going to be inspired to pay money to watch a documentary. It’s simple economics. Plus, using characters to represent the various issues tackled by the book personalises its themes, and makes it more identifiable for audiences. Watching something bad happening to a character is more confronting than having someone talk about something bad happening.

So the makers tried to make the subject matter more accessible and interesting to audiences. The problem is: the best of intentions and motives don’t result in it being a good film.

Greg Kinnear plays a clueless high level executive in the fictional fast food company. Mickeys. His recent campaign for the Big One hamburger has been deemed a huge success. In between working on marketing campaigns he also helps out selecting the super-synthetic chemicals used on the food to give it a taste and smell it shouldn’t possess.

His boss alerts him to the risk that there may be something wrong with the meat in their hamburgers, so he is dispatched to the source of all their meat to find the truth. He travels to the fictional town of Cody, Colorado to have a look at the processes used by the meatpacking plant that is their biggest supplier.

At the same time, Mexican migrants are shown sneaking over the border. Some of them are destined to end up working at the same meat packing plant, exploited by their employers and paid little for their work.

The teenagers working at the front of the Mickey’s enterprises, are, as you would expect, the usual reprobates and food-spitters. One of them, Amber (Ashley Johnson), seems to want something more out of her small-town life, and also realises that she’s uncomfortable with working at Mickeys. She joins up with some anti-fast food activists, who search for some way to strike out against the industry.

The film ultimately fails to deliver on any of these storylines. The clueless executive has to be both stupid and surprised at the actions of the fast food industry to be in the position where its standard practices have to be explained to him. The teenage kid who aspires to something more is forgotten about after a particularly stupid attempt to set some animals free. The migrant workers, as exemplified by Raul (Wilmer Valderrama) Sylvia (Catalina Sandino Morena) and Coco (Ana Claudia Talancon) have each and every bad thing that could happen to migrant workers happen to them all at the same time, making their plight seem less worthy of compassion and more of derision.

The exploitation of migrant workers is well-known and well-documented, and will continue as long as there is money to be made for dangerously unskilled (and therefore cheap) labour in the US. But as each misery is piled upon them they seem less like characters and more as stand-ins for ticking off items on a checklist of misery.

The activists are represented as clueless children incapable of making any impact or impression. Even worse, pop singer Avril Lavigne has a cameo as one of their members, and is particularly bad in a film overflowing with mediocre performances..

Ethan Hawke, Bruce Willis and Kris Kristofferson all have strange cameos in the film, as if to show by their presence that they are against some of the practices of the fast food industry, but their roles are badly written and amount to delivering exposition (as in, delivering slabs of data) in dull ways.

The film has all the disadvantages of fiction (stilted dialogue, poorly developed characters, flat scenes) with none of the advantages of the documentary format (having credible people who know and can articulate or show what the truth of a situation is). In this form it is easier for critics to dismiss its points because of the amateurish way it is put together.

It is most powerful and hardest to watch during the scenes on the killing floor at the meat packing plant. This genuine footage of cattle being slaughtered and torn apart may be too much for audience members to endure. It is more horrific and harder to watch than anything in Saw III or any other recent horror or war films you can think of.

There are serious problems in the US fast food industry where the legislation protecting consumers but seen as impeding profits have been systematically stripped back to give some corporations more power than any business should ever have. And the rising levels of obesity and diet-related disease also point to something rotten in the land of the Golden Arches.

But this film doesn’t do justice to these issues or the book it is meant to be based on.

If anything, it’ll make people think about picking up a burger or three after the film just out of spite.