Purposefully disturbing movies give me no small amount of trouble because they defy my basic view of movies existing to entertain. I do have an exception to the rule, documentaries, they alone can educate without some entertainment value, but it certainly helps if they provide entertainment too. This long meandering introduction brings me to the film Fast Food Nation. The movie is an interpretation of the book of the same name written by Eric Schlosser. The problem is the book stands as a ringing indictment of the meat packing industry’s labor and quality control practices whereas the movie is an attempt at a ringing indictment (but not in documentary form). For better or worse, this puppy has been done in drama form.
In my opinion that’s for the worse. It’s really difficult to tell where the message of this film ends and the drama is supposed to begin; they’re so interwoven they drag each other down. So let’s take a quick stroll down plot lane, shall we? Wilmer Valderrama is part of a group of illegal immigrants that cross into the U.S. and take meat packing plant jobs. Greg Kinnear is a marketing executive for a fast food chain who’s asked to take a look at the plant’s standards. A third plot involves a single mother and her teenage daughter who works at the fast food joint. All of the plot points try to further the overall message of the money grubbing meat packing plants. In that sense the film works pretty well.
Sadly, as a piece of entertainment the film fails and for that reason I’m not sure why someone would willfully purchase a ticket. One of the highlights was Ashley Johnson as Amber, the teen worker at the fast food chain. She really conveys the uncertainty I felt as an audience member, she’s all idealism smacking up against a giant reality wall. Without her the film would have been decidedly weaker and I could really see her becoming something akin to the next Julia Roberts. I’d also point out the film is effective at taking you behind the scenes of the meat packing industry as a whole. Though you’ll be shocked you’ll know in your heart that you’re seeing the facts of the matter. It’s just unfortunate that director Richard Linklater forgot that a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.
The final verdict on Fast Food Nation is that it’s an effective film, an educational film, a film with a ton of cool cameos and one sterling performance that also manages to be fairly boring and heavy handed. This is unfortunate because the message of the horror that unfolds every day in our nation’s meat packing plants is one that desperately needs to be heard. I know the director has taken refuge behind the “this is my interpretation and it’s not literal” defense but that doesn’t make it any more watchable. Fast Food Nation could have been great in two different ways, either as a sobering documentary or as a scathing drama. Instead we’ve got a sobering drama and this road less traveled turns out to be less traveled for a reason… namely that it’s not a pretty journey.