When it was announced that author Eric Schlosser would be writing a screenplay based on his own non-fiction best selling book, Fast Food Nation, it seemed strange that the movie was going to be a fictional story and not a documentary. Not so odd, however, was the choice to get Richard Linklater, the man who directed Dazed And Confused on board to direct. Although Linklater, who co-wrote the screenplay with Schlosser, has made a few flubs in his career he has shown a knack for quirky comedy and maybe, since the cast wrangled up to star in the movie was decent, it looked like it just might work. Sadly, the end result is a wildly uneven satirical drama that doesn't stay focused long enough to work.
The story revolves around a few characters, the first of which is Don Anderson (Greg Kinnear), the current CEO of a fast food chain called Mickey's that is ready to launch its newest burger, The Big One, on an unsuspecting public. The sandwich is a hit but soon Don gets reports that there have been traces of cow feces found in the food. In order to avoid a huge public scandal, Don flies to Colorado to personally inspect the meat processing facilities there where Mickey's gets their beef from.
While Don is dealing with the contaminated meat problem, Amber (Ashley Johnson) is trying to hold her job at the local Mickey's restaurant without screwing up her schoolwork. At the meat processing plant, two illegal immigrants from Mexico named Raul (Wilmer Valderrama) and Sylvia (Sandino Moreno) toil away working for low wages and in lame conditions. Don's investigations take him on a trip through the corporate machine he's basically running and the more he investigates it the less he likes what has happened to it.
For those who haven't read the book that this film is kinda-sorta based on, it's a very in-depth and well researched look at the way that the fast food industry has changed the landscape of North America, worked its way into the very heart of our culture, and had a negative effect on the average person's diet and on the economy of itself. It's a fairly scathing critique of some less than impressive business practices and marketing tactics and a very telling look at the way that the meat industry has curtailed their work to appease the corporate franchise restaurants that keep them in business. It's quite a broad topic and by narrowing it down to a few hollow characters and changing the names of the guilty parties for this fictionalized version, much of the sting has been taken out of the material and the film loses focus fairly quickly by mishandling a few subplots and failing to develop the leads enough for us to care about them. You'd think that the script would be careful to ensure that we care about the 'little guys' in the movie like the Mexican plant workers or the young woman stuck in a dead end job but there isn't nearly enough interconnection between what they're going through and what Don goes through to tie it all together and instead we're left with what feel like some rather lose ends. While Linklater and Schlosser do a good job of critiquing the fast food industry and the sedative lifestyle that is has in the past played a big part in promoting, much of the satire falls flat for the simple reason that these characters don't have enough meat on their bones for us to take an interest in them or in their plights.
Another problem with the story is that it more or less points out the obvious – at t his point in the game, most of us know we shouldn't feast on fast food because it isn't very healthy for us. There are exceptions but much of it is high in fat and cholesterol and it really doesn't do us much good. We know that the meat is less than it should be and that fast food restaurants are hardly a place that anyone truly wants to end up in, career wise. The movie definitely gets on a bit of a pedestal in these areas and winds up preaching to us when the vast majority of people already know this. It could be an attempt to make us care more, but it's a failed attempt, again because it's hard to care about the characters. The movie tries to make the same point about the plight of the Mexican workers, how the corporation takes advantage of them and uses them as fodder to keep the machine going, but again, anyone who reads the news knows this already and because neither Sylvia nor Raul are developed well enough, it doesn't hit home like it should.
With those salvos fired at the film, it isn't a total waste. The first half hour of the movie starts things off really well with some genuinely funny bits and some interesting foreshadowing of what's to come. The culmination of the film's politics and message, a scene which takes place on the killing floor of the slaughterhouse, is also very effective in that it leaves little to the imagination and at least manages to make the audience think about what meat is and what happens to it before it's neatly presented on our plates each night. There are a couple of amusing guest appearances from the likes of Kris Kirstofferson, Bruce Willis and Ethan Hawke, but then there's a cameo from Avril Lavigne as well – these are kind of cute, but don't add much substance to the film. The cinematography from Lee Daniel (who shot Dazed And Confused and Slacker for Linklater) is interesting in that a large portion of the movie is shot like a documentary might be shot, using handheld cameras to give the film a sort of fly-on-the-wall feel. It's just a shame that the story can't sustain would is otherwise an interesting idea.
The screener that Fox sent to review presents the movie in an anamorphic 1.85.1 widescreen transfer that looks to be fairly compressed in spots and as such, shows some artifacting. Color reproduction looks fine and there aren't any problems with print damage or debris despite some moderate grain in scenes, but there's no mistaking those compression artifacts. Hopefully the final version of the disc looks less compressed. The screener also contained an annoying 'Property Of 20th Century Fox' video bug in the top right corner at times.
The English language Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound mix on this disc is quite good. Channel separation is strong when it needs to be but never goes over the top while the dialogue is mixed in nicely with the score and the sound effects to ensure that nothing gets buried in the lower end. Optional subtitles are provided for the film in English, Spanish and French.
Despite the middling quality of the feature itself, Fox has done a very solid job with the extra features on this release, starting things off with a full length audio commentary track courtesy of director Richard Linklater and writer Eric Schlosser. The two men have a pretty good vibe going on the track and what really comes across is how much they tried to capture the spirit of the non-fiction book in a fictitious movie while still trying to make it accessible enough that they could get it into the theaters and get people to watch it. While a documentary probably would have been a better way to go in hindsight, these two guys had their hearts in the right place. It's an interesting discussion, with both men making good points about where they tried to take the story and filling in the blanks on how Schlosser's book of the same name was worked into the interweaving storylines that make up the heart of the movie's plot. The two men are obviously quite intelligent and their discussion does lend some welcome insight into little bits that have been put into the film on purpose that you might not catch the first time around.
From there we move on to a making of documentary entitled Manufacturing Fast Food Nation, directed by Kevin Ford, which runs for roughly an hour in length and covers pretty much everything you'd want to know about Fast Food Nation by way of some interesting interviews with the cast and crew members and some behind the scenes and location shooting footage. If you've ever wanted to see Ethan Hawke juggle while sitting on a couch, this is the documentary for you. Aside from that, what you'll probably take away from this is that everyone who worked on the project seems to have had a fairly good time with it. Even if the results of their efforts were very mixed, the enthusiasm that comes through a few times here is slightly infectious and there are some interesting stories from the trenches told from those who lived it. Additionally it's just interesting to see how some of the scenes were shot and block and put together – there is plenty of technical information in here in addition to the stories of what happened on set and this is a surprisingly substantial piece rather than more of a promotional one.
Fox has also included four odd little Flash animation short films: The Meatrix (3:49), The Meatrix II (4:46), The Meatrix II ½ (2:32) and The Backwards Hamburger (2:48). The three Meatrix shorts are darkly satirical takes on The Matrix trilogy in which Neo is played by a pig who gets involved with trying to stop his fellow farm animals from winding up at a slaughterhouse while The Backwards Hamburger is a darkly comic look at what could actually have come in contact with the meat that you're eating.
Rounding out the extra features are some animated menus, a chapter stop menu and a decent sized still gallery of promotional photographs. No trailer for the feature has been included on this release.
It's hard to gauge the video quality based on the test screener that Fox sent to review, but if the final retail version of Fast Food Nation fixes the compression issues then this turns out to be a pretty interesting package for a very flawed movie. The commentary and the documentary are both quite good as are the animated shorts and this is one of those cases where the supplements make it easier to appreciate the feature, warts and all. This probably isn't a movie people are going to go back to very often but it is worth checking out for the bits that do work. Consider this one a solid rental.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.