Having never read Eric Schlosser's novel Fast Food Nation, I had very few expectations going in to Richard Linklater's adaptation of the best seller. The two teamed up to adapt the book for the screen, keeping mostly the books themes and ideas to construct this eye-opening tale of greed and deception in America's fast food industry. Part satirical drama, part attempted character study, the end result is a mixed bag that is on the whole, worth checking out.
The film is an ensemble piece that follows various characters in their dealing with a particular fast food chain, Mickey's. The first of these is Don Anderson (Greg Kinnear), an exec at Mickey's, who is sent by his boss to Colorado to investigate the behind the scenes of a meat processing plant in Colorado. Don is sent out because the fecal count in their current line of burgers "The Big One" is much to high, which is drawing some concern from the higher ups, which they hope to suppress in order to avoid a public scandal.
However, while Don is dealing with the meat problems, two illegal Mexican immigrants, Raul (Wilmer Valderrama) and Sylvia (Sandino Moreno) find their lives changing and taking shape as they are both exploited at the processing plant in question. It's interesting to watch their journey as they have to make sacrifices and constant struggles to achieve their own little slices of the American dream. On the flip side there is also Amber (Ashley Johnson), who is toiling away at a part time job at one of the local Mickey's restaurant. She's essentially a typical high school kid, a little smarter than most and driven by a passionate uncle (played by Ethan Hawke) and a Gilmore Girls style relationship with her mother (Patricia Arquette).
What the film does wrong is that it never gets to in depth with any single character. A film featuring any of their stories could have easily been constructed and carried much more weight in exploring their plights while taking an interesting look at the industry in question. Instead, the film opts to casually move along, touching upon some interesting ideas, though never fully exploring them to their fullest extent.
What can Don do with the knowledge he has learned about the people he works for? How can Raul and Sylvia survive in an environment designed to exploit them for all they're worth? Can Amber escape a seemingly dead end job in a small town and make more for herself? None of these questions are ever really posed, though they are there and readily apparent. Plus, there really isn't much interconnection between the stories or how they relate other than they're all "related" through the Mickey's corporation on one level or another. Loose ends are never tied and ultimately it leaves you rather unsatisfied.
Despite these shortcomings, the film has many strengths, the story is engaging enough and interesting enough to raise those questions and many more. Still, Linklater and Schlosser do some solid work in criticizing the fast food industry and the blasé lifestyle it promotes. It throws the hue off the rose colored glasses which the fast food industry often shines upon itself. In some ways it's built as a thriller, working to a gruesome and somewhat grotesque ending that you're well aware is coming. When it finally arrives, there is a sense of dread and horror but never quite to the full extent you might hope.
Once again, Fox has seen fit to provide a less than stellar presentation on the screener copy of the film. The film is presented in anamorphic 1.85.1 widescreen transfer that is just mediocre through out. Grain isn't as apparent but artifacting and compression pops up consistently. Colors look okay, but seem rather muted, thought this could have been more of an aesthetic choice than the transfer. There's really no doubt that the final version will have much less artifacting and compression.
Fairing much better is the English language Dolby Digital 5.1 mix. The mix is quite good, with strong channel separation as the dialogue is clear, coming from the front speakers and the surrounds providing some nice ambient during choice scenes. English, Spanish and French subtitles are also included.
Fox has done a good job of providing some interesting extras for the "Fast Food Nation" disc. The first of these is an audio commentary with Linklater and Schlosser. The pair offer an insightful and intelligent discussion of their adaptation of the book as well as some interesting anecdotes regarding the film's making. All in all it's a good listen, especially for Linklater fans.
Also included on the disc is a making of documentary, "Manufacturing Fast Food Nation," which is directed by Kevin Ford. The hour long look at the making film covers virtually every facet of the film, from the script to the actors, to the research done into the meat processing plant. It doesn't go hugely in depth with everything but it's more than enough to satiate interested parties.
A bit odd, but very informative is a series of three animated shorts. "The Meatrix," "The Meatrix II," and "The Meatrix II ½" take the spirit of "The Matrix" and use it to open viewers' eyes about how many meat and poultry farms are being run. The end result may seem silly but effective in relaying information. "The Backwards Hamburger" is another short piece looking at various things that may have come in contact with the meat you might be eating. Rounding out the extras is a still gallery.
Despite some storytelling shortcomings "Fast Food Nation" is an intriguing film that, at the very least, raises questions regarding its subject matter. The end result is entertaining enough and offers some strong performance from all involved including some great cameos from Hawke, Bruce Willis and Kris Kristofferson. It's a film that most Linklater fans will probably embrace, though the more casual viewer may find it a little hard to swallow (pun intended).
Film Value: 6