Americana Movie Month: "Fast Food Nation" Review

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An ensemble piece examining the health risks involved in the fast food industry and its environmental and social consequences as well.
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Americana Movie Month: "Fast Food Nation" Review

-- Rating: R (strong sexuality, disturbing images, language, drug content)
Length: 116 minutes
Release Date: November 17, 2006
Directed by: Richard Linklater
Genre: Comedy/Drama/Romance

"Fast Food Nation" is one of those rare films that are both dramatic and funny while still imparting a message to viewers. It begins with marketing executive Don Anderson (Greg Kinnear), who works for a national burger chain called Mickey's. He has scored major points with his boss by creating the concept for the chain's signature burger, which has increased sales and profits. Things are going great until the meat plant that produces the beef patties for the burger chain conducts tests that turn up positive for cow feces. It is a potential public relations nightmare that must be nipped in the bud before it damages the reputation and profitability of Mickey's.

Don is dispatched to the tiny town of Cody, Colorado, where the meat plant is located to carry out an investigation and make sure the patties are safe. When he arrives, he is shocked to find illegal workers like Sylvia (Catalina Sandino Moreno) and her boyfriend Raul (Wilmer Valderrama) being forced to work in unsafe conditions. He does some investigating and finds that the plant has effectively shut down all smaller meat packing businesses in the area through price gouging and intimidation. The plant's monopoly means they can get away with the occasional unsanitary practice because local buyers have nobody else to turn to for their beef supply.

Nobody but Don seems overly concerned about the contamination, especially broker Harry Rydell (Bruce Willis), who claims that if the meat is cooked properly, the feces won't matter. His cavalier attitude is echoed by most people in Cody, who have no desire to see any changes at the plant. One of the few exceptions is cashier Amber (Ashley Johnson), who is fed up with her job and wants to quit. After seeking the advice of her wise uncle Pete (Ethan Hawke), she decides to join an eco action group that stages a raid to free the cows being kept in tiny pens while they wait to be slaughtered. The release of the animals puts everyone at the plant in a precarious position that could have some fairly unintended consequences for all involved.

Kinnear turns in a sharp performance as the marketing guru who has to sell a part of his soul in order to ignore the evidence of foul play regarding the tainted meat. Willis has a very small role with only a handful of scenes, but he manages to nearly steal the entire show with his hilarious take on the contamination situation. They are just two standouts in an ensemble cast that gives great performances across the board-from Kris Kristofferson's brief cameo as a retired rancher to Valderrama's bilingual role.

The film is set in such a way as to be not only a movie but also a bit of an exposé about greedy executives who take advantage of exploited workers and feed an unsuspecting public tainted meat. Director Richard Linklater, who also co-wrote the film's screenplay, has turned Eric Schlosser's 2001 novel into a narrative that is not in the book. By doing so, he takes nonfiction material that is difficult to adapt and makes it accessible on the screen. It is a real testament to Linklater's genius that he could make a dramatic story out of a fairly straightforward, non-narrative book without losing the point or message. True to form, he also throws in plenty of darkly comical moments that challenge the audience as to whether or not they should actually laugh. Though this is a very different movie compared to "Slacker" or Dazed and Confused," Linklater fans will still see his signature touches sprinkled throughout the film.

The book felt like a whistleblower's guide for those who work in the food industry, while the film feels like a human story that happens to take place in and around the food industry. Surprisingly, none of the novel's bite is lost because "Fast Food Nation" still has plenty of teeth. The movie takes an unflinching look at what transpires in order to get those all-beef patties onto a bun with special sauce at the nearest burger chain outlet. "Fast Food Nation" reveals an unsavory process that could make audience members think twice before they have their next meal at a fast food restaurant. The point of the film isn't necessarily to ruin people's appetites for fast food, but to make consumers pause and wonder where that food came from. It accomplishes this in spades while still managing to be funny and entertaining to boot.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars