Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Fast Food Nation (2006)

"I read this study a couple of days ago," says Ethan Hawke, and I'm thinking well, of course you have dude, you're Ethan Hawke and you're in a new Richard Linklater movie, and in these movies you've always read something you want to tell us about. In this case, the study is about how the people who follow their passion, and go into a field they truly love are happier in the long run and have fewer regrets — even if they are technically less successful — than those that don't.

I think it's safe to say Linklater is in the former. You've got to feel pretty passionate about the state of the food service industry to make a movie like Fast Food Nation, because nobody's gonna ask you to do it, you've got to take it on yourself. Hollywood loves the fast food industry because they cross-market their movies through them. Happy Meals, baby. I loved 'em as a kid.

This movie is a tough sell, even to fans of Eric Schlosser's devastatingly powerful non-fiction book which forms the background for this fiction film. Reading the book, and reading the descriptions of deplorable working conditions, poor quality meat, and literal butchery pales in comparison to actually seeing all those things on an enormous screen in a darkened room. But more than that, people who haven't read the book already (it's quite a few years old at this point) are likely choosing the path of willfull ignorance. They don't want to know; they actively choose to not think about where their food comes from.

I'll give you an example of what I mean. I was out at dinner a month or so ago with some friends. One of the women at the table ordered a steak. I ordered lamb. After the waitress took our order I was assaulted: "How can you eat lamb?!? It's a lamb!" I asked how my eating a (frankly delicious) piece of lamb was any different from her eating a steak, and she was unable to fully articulate it until we sussed out that it was actually the words itself that made her choice delicious and mine distasteful. I was eating "lamb." But she was eating "steak" not "cow." If the menu had read "cow" she might not have ordered it. By using a different word to describe the food, it distanced it enough that she didn't have to think about the animal the meat was coming from. She hated the thought of killing animals, so best not to think about that when you're eating them.

Attacking that basic idea (one I'd wager a lot of meat eaters in this country hold, consciously or not) is a key element to Linklater's engrossing though not entirely successful film. Our "fast food nation" is built upon our total lack of connection with where our food comes from; out of sight, out of mind. At the very least, if you see Fast Food Nation you will learn — to frequently devastating effect — where the meat comes from and the deplorable process by which a dopey animal becomes a tiny round patty of ground beef.

A great deal of Fast Food Nation is about disrupting the way we distance ourselves. Greg Kinnear, superbly understated in the role of a marketing exec at a fast food chain sent to investigate possible contamination at a key meat packing plant in Colorado, is laying on the bed of his hotel room when the maid, a Mexican woman (played by Catalina Sandino Moreno) enters. Kinnear barely acknowledges her existence, as many people do when staying in a hotel, but half the movie is her struggle to enter the United States, and to scratch out an existence, to make a home and a life here with her husband (the agreeably restrained Wilmer Valderrama). We don't want to think about how things get clean or how cows become burgers; it makes things simpler and easier (steak, not cow) when we don't. When Kinnear arrives in Colorado, he goes to a local franchise and orders "The Big One," the popular burger he and his marketing team helped create. He really enjoys going to the restaurant, picking his meal, interacting with the clerk, eating his sandwich. Later, after learning some of the truth, he eats another burger, and this time he pauses ever so slightly before taking that first bite. He's a bit more reluctant now.

As Kris Kristofferson puts it during his effective cameo, the meat packing industry is a machine, one that grinds up everything and anything (and, indeed, anyone) simply to make a few extra pennies on the pound. He doesn't necessarily begrudge them for it — as he observes, they're excellent businessmen — he is simply stating as fact, something Schlosser and Linklater do exceptionally well throughout Fast Food Nation: present evidence and facts, without rushing to judgment. After Kinnear speaks with Kristofferson's rancher, he then sits down with Bruce Willis' lawyer, who helped broker the deal between Kinnear's fast food chain and the unsavory meat packers. Willis gives another side of the story: yes the food's contaminated, but guess what: it's always been that way. And yes the workers aren't treated well, but guess what: they're treated and paid a hell of a lot better than in Mexico.

I greatly enjoyed Kinnear and Moreno's segments of the film. The third portion, about a naive teenager who jockeys a fast food register and later gets involved with a group of college kids trying to take a stand against the fast food industry, hits some clever notes (particularly after the teens decide to make a statement by liberating some cows) but the acting and the writing (including, sadly, Ethan Hawke's) isn't quite as sharp as the other two thirds. Linklater tries a bold structure, concluding Kinnear's storyline about two-thirds through the film, but as that part is easily the most compelling, the movie loses something once it loses him. And that overly didactic last scene is far too on the nose and belongs in another movie. But there's no denying, as Hawke implies, that Linklater (like, in some ways, Darren Aronofsky and The Fountain) has followed his passion regardless of whether anyone else will follow him to them.


Blogger poorpete said...

mmmmmm lamb. Thank goodness my family was one of the few Christian families who celebrated Passover.

11:39 AM  

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