Fast Food Nation
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Fast Food Nation

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As a country we consume a huge quantity of fast food. Whether its MacDonalds, Burger King or any one of dozens of others chains and independently owned fast food places Americans will always keep these places in business. Sure, there are a plethora of television exposes and research reports but Americans still turn to these restaurants for a lest a few meals each month. In 2001 a book was published by investigative journalist Eric Schlosser, Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal. This was a heavily documented, in depth examination of the multi-billion dollar fast food industry, not something that would normally be considered a basis for a film. That was not something that would deter the executives in Hollywood. The topic was one that personally touched almost every American; it was sensationalistic and bound to gather at least some controversy. So in the 2006 Cannes Film Festival the film by the same name was premiered. The similarities between book and film are remote at best. The share the same title and both look at the same industry but the film is completely fictionalized. Facts too dry for the cinema were made into personal stories of people who are in various parts of the industry.

Don Henderson (Greg Kinnear) is a likeable sort of fellow. He works as a Vice President for the large, national fast food chain, Mickey’s. His job in the marketing department is normally rather easy, after all Americans naturally flock to the thousands of franchises around the globe. A recent scientific study about to be released has Don’s bosses in a quagmire. Reports of cow manure in Mickey’s most popular item, the Big One, will be disastrous for the conglomerate. People will put up with transfats, cholesterol and other forms of grease but literal BS in a burger will surely curtail sales. Don is dispatched by the bosses on a covert mission. He is to track down the basis of these findings before they can damage the company. Don winds up in the town of Cody, Colorado where Mickey’s has a major feed lot and packing plant, a less politically correct way to say slaughterhouse. Not only are thousands of cattle brought here to become hopefully tasty burger meat but the town is a gathering point of numerous Mexican immigrants. Included in the latest shipment of human cargo is Sylvia (Catalina Sandino Moreno). Coming along with her is her wild child sister Coco (Ana Claudia Talancon) and Sylvia’s husband Raul (Wilmer Valderrama). Like many others they are brought to the States by a professional human trafficker known as Benny (Luis Guzman). All of the people he brings over want just one thing, to find a better life here in America. Most that come to Cody wind up like Raul taking the most unsavory jobs possible at the plant. Though Don the audience gets to meet a variety of local people involved with the supply side of fast food. There is the plant manager, Mike (Bobby Cannavale) who tries to no avail to keep local students from "liberating" the cattle before they can meet their fate. There is the practical cattle supplier, Harry (Bruce Willis) whose advice to Don is forget it since we all have to eat a little ‘excrement’ now and again.

The film personalizes the facts in the books by telling the story from different angles, each concerning someone in a different aspect of the company. For Sylvia and Raul the jobs are dirty, actually downright disgusting. Coco just wants to enjoy the party atmosphere of the town’s main drag. She is being pulled into a bad relationship with a local, Bobby (Bobby Cannavale) who is also getting the young girl into drugs. For Mickey’s teenaged counter girl, Amber (Ashley Johnson), she is morally torn between the job she needs and joining the local ‘eco-terrorist’ out to save the cattle from undue suffering. Mike seems to make up for his failures on the job by using the workplace as trolling grounds for attractive women working there. The film does humanize the places we all take for granted. Most of us just drive up to the window, give our orders and eat our meals without any thought to all the people involved in putting that burger into a little Styrofoam container. We never think about the people that have to do the dirty work of killing the animals or the ones that have to take large pieces of meat and grind it up into burger ready form. The film also takes on another hot button topic, illegal aliens. Most television talking head shows speak about them as a menace, other counter that they are taking the jobs unwanted by Americans. Here we see in graphic detail just want one of these jobs requires. If you are going to watch this film it is best to do so before dinner. It is pretty much guaranteed to put you off any meat product. Writer-director Richard Linklater shows the people in this industry as being treated as anonymous cogs in the corporate machine, only slightly better than the cow that will becomes tomorrow’s super sized burger.

Linklater does well here but the work is flawed. It takes a lot to drive a film’s narrative through a large, dissociated ensemble cast. The master of this cinematic format is without any doubt Robert Altman. Linklater is working towards becoming the successor of the master but with this film he is not there yet. In a film in this format the ending is crucial. All of the complicated sub plots have to collide at the end. This is not the case here. The central character in the beginning of the film, Don, disappears mid way through and is not seen again until just before the closing credits. Coco is miraculously saved from her wrongful ways without any real explanation. There is little except Mickey’s to tie the various characters together leaving the audience somewhat distracted. He is talented and willing to take risks. Just look at some of his previous works such as ‘SubUrbia’, ‘A Scanner Darkly’ and the classic ‘Dazed and Confused’. He also did the lamented ‘Bad News Bears’ remake but I won’t hold that against him.

This is a fine cast that was obviously assumed to reach out to a younger demographic. There is some stunt casting like including the popular singer Avril Lavigne in a small role and of course the very well known Wilmer Valderrama from television’s ‘That 70’s Show’. Valderrama does do well stretching beyond his familiar clueless foreign exchange persona that he built for the small screen. He plays Raul as a man who is willing to take on the most heinous work possible just to give a good life to his family. He hates what he is doing but the prospect of returning to Mexico is unthinkable. Greg Kinnear is great as the affable Don. He is the kind of guy men would like to grab a few beers and watch a game with. Kinnear plays Don as a man conflicted between wanting to serve his corporate masters and his concerns over public safety. Catalina Sandino Moreno does an excellent job in portraying her character. She makes Sylvia into the heart of the film as a woman who is trying to cope with a new country while attempting to rein in her little sister from the excesses of American life. Ashley Johnson may look very familiar to many people. As a child she played the youngest sibling of the Sever clan on television’s ‘Growing Pains’. Johnson is now making the difficult transition to an adult actress and is off to a fine start here. She manages to reach out to the audience and makes an over used moral dilemma into something real.

20th Century Fox brings this film to DVD with average technical specifications. The video is in 1.85:1 aspect ratio. The color balance is good with attention to the palette and saturation levels. The Dolby 5.1 is mostly used for the pop oriented musical score. The channel separation is okay but not spectacular. The extras demonstrate that this film and DVD is being marketed to the younger set. There are a series of Flash animations called the ‘meatrix’ that highlight various parts of the burger production process. There is a pretty typical making of featurette and a little bit called the ‘Backwards Hamburger’ which is pretty much what t sounds like. The commentary by Linklater and his co-writer Eric Schlosser is interesting especially when they go into how they had to approach bringing the spirit of the book to the screen. This is a good solid flick that could have been more.

Posted 02/11/07

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