The killing floor isn’t sloshed through until the final sequence of Richard Linklater’s adaptation of Eric Schlosser’s incendiary exposé, which threw a Molotov cocktail through the slaughterhouse window and burned its way up the New York Times Best Seller list in 2003. Still, you’ll be regretting that last drive-thru (one of your last three meals, if you’re in lockstep with America) once the Goth teenager grilling ‘em up at Mickey’s spits in Greg Kinnear’s burger.
But between these two gross-outs, Linklater’s indictment of the fast food industry is merely intellectually gratuitous as it builds its case against the Consumer Age. As witnesses, the sprawling film calls up everyone from Ethan Hawke to Kris Kristofferson as characters who testify against modern sins from McJobs to suburban sprawl. Avril Lavigne even pops up to rail against deforestation. Who knew she could pronounce it?
Still, forgive the script’s clunky, vestigial speeches. Distilling Schlosser’s ambitious 400-page book, which itself sacrificed unity to cram in every last jab into a coherent 100- minute movie is a fait accompli akin to capturing the quirks of the entire cast of Seinfeld in a haiku. Like so many grandiose films this year, Fast Food Nation assembles a chopped salad of a cast and sets about splicing their plot lines together (often jarringly, like when a boardroom of burger world businessmen cuts to a dusty group of migrants rushing the Mexican border).
Representing The Man is Kinnear’s beleaguered middle manager, sent by fast food corporation headquarters to interview their meatpacker overseer (Bruce Willis, cynical and sexy as always) and find out why there’s shit—excuse me, “fecal matter”—in their patties. Several rungs underneath Willis, a villainous plant supervisor (Bobby Cannavale) browbeats and overworks his illegal immigrants when not corrupting the desperate ladies with meth and moustache rides in his pickup. Workers Wilmer Valderrama, Catalina Sandino Moreno and Ana Claudia Talacón are just trying to make good on the American Dream, as are high school student Amber (Ashley Johnson) and her single mother Cindy (Patricia Arquette), both working polyester uniform jobs to cover the rent and electric for their small, cookie-cutter apartment.
These plot threads in Linklater and Schlosser’s script complement each other, but aren’t contrived to overlap. Everyone’s sweating to keep the paychecks coming, which forces them all into difficult choices—and though only a few walk through the killing room floor, no one comes out clean. (Even Amber joins up with a group of ridiculously naïve environmentalists led by a wannabe Che Guevara who’s changed his whitebread name to Paco.) Which makes this film seem half-hearted and sloppy for those expecting a black-humored screed. Unlike so many recent leftist documentaries that wear their just sympathies on their sleeves, Fast Food Nation isn’t a sermon—it’s a snapshot of our culture that wants to capture everything in the frame.
But it’s worthy. The film nails today’s landscape of Taco Bells and Conocos, and it gets why Valderrama’s transplanted Raul finds their neon lights inspiring. At its heart, the movie is content to leave the dietary warnings to Morgan Spurlock; looking beyond caloric catastrophe, it sets its sights on Mexican-American relations, globalization, industrialization, standardization, dehumanization, and every other creature pervasive enough to be an -ization. Change the first two words in the title and the film could just as easily center itself around Nike as McDonald’s. Where Upton Sinclair walked out of the slaughterhouse and called it a jungle, 100 years later, we’ve merely tidied up the savagery and built our nation on it.