Have you ever been hit over the head with a brick? Probably not, because you most likely have an inclination toward self-preservation. Well, if you go to see “Fast Food Nation,” you will be hit over the head with a metaphorical brick, a heavy-handed exposé of everything greedy, soulless, depressing and frustrating about America today. So save yourself, and don’t go.
But perhaps that’s not fair; there is a silver lining to this particular form of abuse. The people wielding the brick will be such varied and illustrious actors as Wilmer Valderrama (Fez of “That 70’s Show”), Greg Kinnear and Paul Danno (“Little Miss Sunshine”), Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke, Bruce Willis and Avril Lavigne (best for last).
The film is a vehicle for actors from every tier of stardom to show that they care. And that fleeting moment when you realize that Avril Lavigne wants to save the world may be the only feel-good revelation of “Fast Food Nation.” The rest of the plot is a series of very loosely connected traumatic stories — a marketing manager for the fast-food chain “Mickey’s” discovers the disgusting causes of contaminated beef, Mexicans cross the border and face bleak new lives working in a meat-packing factory, and a teenager who works at “Mickey’s” struggles to find a new way to damn the Man.
The point of making a fictional movie out of Eric Schlosser’s nonfiction book was supposedly to make it more compelling through personal stories, through depictions of individuals’ suffering. Yet the characters are caricatures of clichés. Amber, played by Ashley Jones, is just a teen working for the evil fast-food chain. That is, until her super-cool uncle Pete (Ethan Hawke) teaches her that she too can make a difference.
Too bad the college activist group she falls in with is filled with advocates as statistic-saturated and ineffective as she is. When they try to set free the soon-to-be-hamburger cows, the cows won’t leave the paddock. “Don’t you want to be free?” Amber yells, and it’s at about this point when the majority of the audience wants to do what those cows cannot: escape.
This plotline, however, is only a small fraction of the overall movie and is insignificantly painful compared to the other depressing moments. To help you imagine the full scope of the metaphorical brick, here is a list of the film’s 10 other dismal topics. One: puppies in small cages. Two: addiction to “crank.” Three: a cow being skinned on screen. Four: the lonely death of an illegal immigrant by heat and thirst. Five: a leg being chewed off by machinery in a meat-packing plant. Six: shit in hamburgers. Seven: spit in hamburgers. Eight: metal detectors and drug dogs in high schools. Nine: suburban sprawl developments encroaching on nice old ranchers’ farms. Ten: total inability to find legal representation or employment as an illegal immigrant.
Maybe the intention of this movie — to open the eyes of the American population to so many disparate forms of prevalent injustice — redeems “Fast Food Nation” in some way. The makers of this film clearly meant for it to serve as a modern-day version of Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle,” to facilitate reform through the gross-out factor of the current truth. It just seems that the potential revolutionary impact of the movie is hindered by the tiresome, relentless series of terrible events. Any moments of optimism are so cheesy that they make you queasier than those scenes that evoke a PETA propaganda film.
Perhaps writer/director Richard Linklater should stick with such pleasantly amusing endeavors as “Dazed and Confused,” “School of Rock” and “Bad News Bears” (the remake). But until he decides to do so, we get to watch movies “about the machine that’s taking over this country.” The machine that “don’t give a shit.” Except, that is, when it gives us shit as a primary ingredient in our extremely cheap burgers.
Fast Food Nation
Dir: Richard Linklater
Fox Searchlight Pictures