Eric Schlosser knows that people don’t like to be preached at. His snappy bestseller is fundamentally a critique of unchecked capitalism, but told in approachably muckraking, sometimes lurid segments: fat American children (troubling!), overwhelming franchise sameness (eerie!), unsafe meatpacking factories (frightening!), underpaid teenagers (saddish!), chemical flavorings and factory-like slaughterhouses (gross!).
The decision to make "Fast Food Nation" a narrative film instead of the expected doc is, in that sense, right in line with the spirit of the book. And Richard Linklater, who’s done sprawling with effortless aplomb before, seems like a good fit as a director. But the road to tedium is paved with good intentions, and "Fast Food Nation" is a flat film, one with a fine heart and no pulse.
The film has archetypal characters standing in for each fast food-related ill, most played by someone famous or soon to be. There’s the trio of illegal immigrants who end up laboring at the slaughterhouse (Catalina Sandino Moreno, Ana Claudia TalancÃ³n, Wilmer Valderrama). There are the bored behind-the-counter teenagers (Paul Dano, Ashley Johnson). There are the complicit corporate types (Greg Kinnear, Bruce Willis). There are the college-age activists (Avril Lavigne, Lou Taylor Pucci) and the starting-to-look-a-little-drawn activists (Ethan Hawke). There are the ones in the industry, both responsible (Kris Kristofferson) and not-so-responsible (Bobby Cannavale). And on. There are no villains; everyone is equipped with a contradiction or two, which can pass as actual characterization if you squint.
"Fast Food Nation" is too sprawling and studied to engage as a narrative or a portrait of ailing working-class semi-urban life (the film is set in fictional Cody, CO, a convincing spread of autocentric Americana with strip malls instead of a downtown). Linklater seems to have suppressed his directorial urges in the interests of earnestness â€” it’s only when Hawke bounces in as a talky, free-spirited cabinet maker that it seems like his film at all. But if the film is meant to be more of a serviceable vehicle for a call to action (and that’s certainly seems to be the intent of the storyline surrounding Johnson’s gradually awakening high schooler), that call’s not going to reach any further than it would have as a doc. One imagines that, like the overly naive marketer played by Kinnear, most of the audience members seeing this will sigh, shake their heads, agree that it’s a terrible thing and go on, content that they, at least, get their meals from Whole Foods.
[What an odd career niche Catalina Sandino Moreno is occupying! This is the third film in which she’s offered herself up as the serenely suffering, symmetrical face of a developing-world madonna. We hope she gets to shoot someone in her next role. Ah, but likely not.]
Opens November 17th in limited release.
+ "Fast Food Nation" (Fox Searchlight)