In 2001 Eric Schlosser’s bestselling book Fast Food Nation lifted the lid on the the horrorible truths of fast food: dodgy meat, immigrant workers paid pittence greedy corporations and a global industry keeping the public in the dark. How do you turn a fact-based book into a fictional film? Make it into a series of character studies that not only removes much of the direct impact, but is too cool to tackle all the issues head on.
Director, and co-writer alongside Schlosser, Richard Linklater wants us to get into the lives behind the facts and would seem to be a good person for the job. He has made a career of making movies where characters love to talk their problems through with others in great detail: in Before Sunset (1995) and Before Sunrise (2004) two lovers spend the entire film talking constantly about their feelings. For Fast Food Nation, then, it comes as a surprise that despite a whole lot of talking, it adds up to a bland filling which never tackles the wrongs of the industry head on.
While it tackles the issues of poor working conditions in the meat factories, there is little here that suggests we can do anything about it.
The movie is split between different parts of the fictional company Mickey’s Fast Food Restaurant chain in the fictional town of Cody, Colorado: the disgruntled American kids who work in the restaurants, Mexican illegal immigrants forced to work in the meat packing plants and successful fast food advertising executive Don Henderson (Greg Kinnear) assigned to make sure the two workplaces are providing and serving real meat. While the immigrant stroyline is interesting in its depiction of how the cows end up as burgers (in some grizzly scenes) and the exploitation of employees unable to go elsewhere, it is something that has been tackled many times before. The American kids are moody teenagers seeking a call to action, a lot like Linklater’s bunch in Dazed and Confused (1993) yet even when they try to beat the system they fail. Greg Kinnear’s business executive seems like his investigation might make some progress and change his the way his company does business, but frustratingly gets nowhere.
These varied strands of dramatisation water down the effect of the hard-hitting book, lacking a call to action against the fast food chains it seems to implicitly rather than explicitly criticise. While it tackles the issues of poor working conditions in the meat factories, there is little here that suggests we can do anything about it — just a lot of annoying people complaining a lot. Fast Food Nation would have been better either as a straight-up documentary, an in-vogue genre at the moment, or had more focus on characters successfully beating the system. Perhaps bringing the fast food industry down to the worker’s level was an interesting idea, but the facts are buried in token appearances by Avril Lavigne, Kris Kristofferson, Bruce Willis and Linklater-favourite Ethan Hawke. Rather than getting an eye-opening expose that made the book so popular, you come away only aware of a problem and not armed with the firm details. For that reason, Fast Food Nation is a bit like a dodgy burger: the meat is in there, but it’s been thrown in with a lot of unwelcome filler.