Fast Food Nation

Cast:
Greg Kinnear as Don Anderson
Wilmer Valderrama as Raul
Catalina Sandino Moreno as Sylvia
Ashley Johnson as Amber
Paul Dano as Brian
Patricia Arquette as Cindy
Luis Guzmán as Benny
Bobby Cannavale as Mike
Kris Kristofferson as Rudy Martin
Ana Claudia Talancón as Coco
Juan Carlos Serrán as Esteban
Armando Hernández as Roberto
Frank Ertl as Jack Deavers
Michael D. Conway as Phil
Mitch Baker as Dave
Ellar Salmon as Jay
Dakota Edwards as Stevie
Dana Wheeler-Nicholson as Debi
Francisco Rosales as Jorge
Esai Morales as Tony
Yareli Arizmendi as Gloria
Raquel Gavia as Rita
Hugo Perez as Francisco
Helen Merino as Lisa
Erinn Allison as Hotel Desk Clerk
Ethan Hawke as Pete
Aaron Himelstein as Andrew
Avril Lavigne as Alice
Marco Perella as Tom Watson
Lou Taylor Pucci as Paco
Humberto Velez as Cesar

Directed by Richard Linklater

Summary:
Richard Linklater continues Eric Schlosser’s war on fast food with a fascinating story of how real people are affected by the unsavory practices of big business.

Story:
“Fast Food Nation” tells three interlocking stories set in the fast food business: Don Anderson (Greg Kinnear) is an ad exec for Mickey’s fast food chain, sent to investigate a case of contaminated frozen burgers at the Colorado meat-packing factory where illegal Mexican immigrant workers work in less than satisfactory conditions. Two of those workers, Raul and Sylvia (Wilmer Valderrama, Catalina Sandino Moreno), have crossed the border hoping to start a new life together in America but facing the difficult working conditions at the plant. Amber (Ashley Johnson) is a normal high school teen working at a Mickey’s restaurant who wants more from life than to end up like her mother (Patricia Arquette) who also works at a local fast food place.

Analysis:
Eric Schlosser’s 2001 novel “Fast Food Nation” was a probing investigation into the country’s fast food business and how the disgusting methods they used to create their menus. Four years later, Morgan Spurlock did his own experiment to force people to rethink their eating habits in the doc “Super Size Me.” Instead of trying to follow that with another doc based on the findings of his book, Schlosser teamed with indie maven Richard Linklater to create a film that provides the same information in the form of a dramatic character piece. The resulting film takes a more serious approach than Jason Reitman’s “Thank You for Smoking,” which revealed the evils of big tobacco using biting dark humor, as Linklater goes the route of “Traffic” or “Crash” by cutting between three stories told at once.

As the touchstone for getting the factual data to the viewer, Greg Kinnear’s Don Anderson is a company man at Mickey’s, a fast food chain with a slight name change to avoid lawsuits. Don is assigned to track down a potentially serious problem involving contaminated meat, which takes him from the ranches of Colorado to the meat packing plant, the latter having been conveniently cleaned up to keep him from seeing the dirty and unsafe working environments of the mostly illegal Mexican workers. Don’s quest for the truth has him talking to ranchers and former factory employees, but the most enlightening taste of reality comes in the form of meat vendor Harry Rydell–a surprise cameo by a well-known actor–who seems unbothered by the allegations of unclean meat as he wolfs down on his own burger.

The second story is about two of those Mexican immigrants, Raul (Wilmer Valderrama) and Sylvia (Catalina Sandino Moreno), who crossed the board together in hopes of having a new life together in America. They fare better than many of their peers who end up hooked on drugs in order to work longer hours and losing limbs in the meat-cutting machines. While Sylvia opts to stay away from the factory, her sister Coco (Ana Claudia Talancón) ends up in a drug-addled relationship with the factory’s abusive supervisor, played by Bobby Cannavale. Their story offers the most dramatic weight and depth, as we see the terrible conditions they endure to make a living while maintaining their relationships in the face of this adversity.

The third story involves a smart teen named Amber (Ashley Johnson), who works at a local Mickey’s but wants to get out before she ends up like her mother (Patricia Arquette). Her story is far less treacherous or unnerving than the other two, being more in the vein of the disaffected small town teens of Linklater’s “Dazed and Confused.” It wouldn’t be a Linklater movie without an appearance by Ethan Hawke, who shows up as Amber’s liberal uncle and motivates her to do something proactive about the treatment of the cows by the company.

Even though the movie is fiction, a lot of it may as well be a documentary the way that it’s filmed. Despite the amount of facts and figure, the first half moves at a rapid pace by jumping between the different characters over an indeterminate amount of time that could be weeks or even months. Later on, it gets a bit long-winded as Linklater sometimes bogs things down with his trademark dialogue, which gets the book’s message across while throwing a few of his own insightful thoughts into the mix. By the last half hour, Don Anderson has completely left the picture for it to focus on Amber’s activism and the difficulties faced by Raul and Sylvia, the latter being the most interesting story.

Linklater has assembled an impressive cast to tell this story, but it rarely gets cumbersome since it usually only deals with two or three of the characters at a time. Ashley Johnson and Catalina Moreno are clear stand-outs as young, resourceful women whose lives are changed by their involvement with the fast food industry. Kinnear is as likeable as always as he interacts with others, but the biggest surprising is seeing Bobby Cannavale shed his nice-guy charm to play an absolutely awful person, who seems to relish being hated by his Mexican workers.

Having heard about workers losing limbs and of the “kill floor” where cows are brutally slaughtered, you’ll spend a lot of the movie on the edge of your seat, wondering when Linklater will throw some of those horrifying images your way to drive home the message. By the time he gets around to it, you’ll probably already have sworn off Big Macs and Quarter Pounders for life.

The Bottom Line:
Fans of Linklater’s proclivity towards intelligent filmmaking should appreciate his approach to Schlosser’s material in “Fast Food Nation,” showing how the fast food companies’ desire to make and save money creates conditions with serious implications for real people. It’s a powerful message that won’t be easily forgotten, and as bad an idea as it is to eat before seeing it, you probably won’t be very hungry (at least not for fast food) afterwards either.

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