Getting Indigestion Over Fast Food Nation

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Our first night in Cannes, I didn't have time for a full French dinner, so I grabbed take-out at the local fast-food joint: McDonald's. In France, that's the culinary equivalent of a war crime. I felt a little guilty about it. Now, after seeing the movie Fast Food Nation, which is in competition for this year's Palme d'Or, I feel bad in a different way. A couple of different ways.

At the beginning of the film, Don Henderson (Greg Kinnear), a marketing V.P. for Mickey's burger franchise, gets some bad news from a company exec: "The fecal coliform [bacteria] counts were just off the charts ... I'm saying there's shit in our meat." But Don is a hard man to rob of his optimism. Before he goes off to inspect a meat factory, he cheerfully enunciates a rule of Marketing 101: "Don't kill the customer. It's bad for repeat business."

Eric Schlosser's non-fiction best-seller Fast Food Nation suggested that, if Big Macs and Whoppers weren't killing the average American (who consumes three burgers and four orders of French fries a week), they were stuffing him with toxic waste. The book, and Schlosser's kid-friendly sequel Chew on This: Everything You Don't Want to Know About Fast Food, might have made for a stinging documentary film. But that was too simple for him and director Richard Linklater (Dazed and Confused, Before Sunrise, School of Rock); or maybe they thought that Morgan Spurlock's Super Size Me had already tilled most of that soil. So they turned Fast Food Nation into a fiction film, with a different muckraking antecedent.

Exactly a century ago, Upton Sinclair published his novel The Jungle, about an immigrant who is exploited at every turn: paying the people who bring them to America, exploited by their bosses as they work in subhuman conditions at the brutal job of meatpacking (i.e., animal slaughter) in Chicago's stockyards, where political and economic corruption is the m.o. of unfettered capitalism.

The movie made from Fast Food Nation takes as much from The Jungle as it does from Schlosser's book. Here the immigrants are illegals from Mexico, but their path, their Calvary, is the same. They survive a perilous trip into the U.S. and are assigned a literally vomitous job handling cattle innards at the "Uni-globe" meat plant. The women endure rough handling by their sexually avaricious overlord; some of the men get mangled in the machinery, only to be told they're not eligible for insurance.

Sounds bleakly fascinating, eh? It isn't. The movie means to be a mix of the sardonic Thank You for Smoking (this would be Thank You for Poisoning Yourselves) and the plaintive exposé Maria Full of Grace (but with the illegal immigrants forced to slaughter meat instead of serving as mules for hard drugs). But in fictionalizing McDonald's as Mickey's while still trying to make all the points the book does, Schlosser and Linklater can't breathe life into any of the characters, content to create stick figures.

Kinnear's Don is so wide-eyed in his early naivete, he might be a calf sauntering unawares toward the stun gun; once he sees the ugly light, he disappears from the film. The teenage Amber (Ashley Johnson), who grows from a Mickey's countergirl to an animal-rights activist, is just another couple of chapter headings for the charnel issues being raised. Same with Sylvia (Maria Full of Grace's Catalina Sandino Moreno), one of the horribly exploited immigrants. Even someone (like me) who might agree with every political point in the film will get exasperated with the obviousness of the portrayals, the stodginess of the drama, the lame mise-en-scène.

I have to say I enjoyed Bruce Willis, who, as a wily businessman who cut the deal between Mickey's and Uni-globe, says sagely, "We all have to eat a little shit from time to time." Kris Kristofferson brings his flinty authority to the role of a rancher who knows all the dirty tricks of the meat business. And the knee-jerk Leftie in me appreciated Lou Taylor Pucci's comments as a campus activist. He notes that, these days, any of act of civil disobedience could attract the attention of the Department of Homeland Security, and adds, "Right now, I couldn't think of anything more patriotic than violating the Patriot Act." There's also an effective scene where the college radicals try liberating a herd of cows from their captivity, and the animals don't budge. It's a provocative metaphor for the complacent American consumer — but like nearly everything in the film, it's both overstated and underdramatized.

Again, I agree that fast food may be bad straight down the line: for the cattle, the factory workers, the kids behind the counter and the people addicted to them. (Though in France the burgers sure taste better.) But I don't go to films only to have my prejudices reinforced; I'd like to see a story with surprising vectors, characters who are more than caricatures, a sense of vitality or elegance in the visual style. The Linklater Fast Food Nation has none of this. Why, it's so lifeless, it almost makes The Da Vinci Code seem like... a movie.

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