Richard Linklater is a director who point blank refuses to be pigeonholed; try and pin him down to a particular genre and he'll slip out of your grasp like a greased pig. Having recently tackled science fiction with his critically lauded big-screen version of Philip K. Dick's A Scanner Darkly
, he's now turning his hand to yet another book adaptation, namely Eric Schlosser's international bestseller, Fast Food Nation. The same people who puzzled over how the director would translate something like Scanner Darkly's scramble suit into film must now be wondering how he'll repeat the same trick with Schlosser's opus: a distinctly non-fictional insight into the murky world of the fast food industry that's heavy with facts and figures, it doesn't exactly scream 'Make a movie out of me!'
Linklater wisely eschews the documentary format - been there, done that, super-sized it - and crafts a fictional, multi-layered narrative with an ensemble cast that flit in and out of each other's storylines. We're introduced to Don Henderson (Greg Kinnear), a top marketing executive working for Mickey's fast food restaurant. When his boss informs him that the faecal content in Mickey's meat patties is off the scale ("there's shit in the meat"), Don travels to Cody, Colorado, home of the company's best selling burger, The Big One. Here, he visits the UMP meat-packing plant, where countless Mexican immigrants work on the production lines, yanking out cow guts and wrestling with mountains of offal behind the scenes. Elsewhere on his travels, Don meets bright young Mickey's cashier Amber (Ashley Johnson) and grizzled old rancher Rudy (Kris Kristofferson) before slowly starting to piece together the bigger picture - there's something sinister hiding in-between those sesame seed buns, and it doesn't smell right.
The only trouble is, we all know there's questionable meat in our burgers. Hell, if they were good for us, we'd eat them all the time, right? Ever since Morgan Spurlock piled on the pounds back in 2004, the fast food industry has come under closer scrutiny than ever before, so even learning that there's bovine muck in our Big Macs isn't the shock revelation it should have been. It takes Kinnear's buttoned-down businessman two long hours to realise that the industry he works in is corrupt from top to bottom, during which time the assembled cast all predictably fall victim to the mighty meat merchants, whether it's via dodgy factory conditions, wage slavery or the corporate money men.
It's all no doubt extremely close to the truth, but as a story it's like an over-salted meal - bitter and too difficult to swallow. Character arcs dip and rise but ultimately conclude unsatisfactorily and build towards nothing in particular; one final scene on the killing room floor - featuring everything gross you could ever do to a dead cow - does make for uncomfortable viewing, but Linklater is largely preaching to the converted. It's all a little too much, a little too late.
Kinnear plods along gamely enough, but he's playing the exact same character he's played in a dozen other movies (see: Little Miss Sunshine, The Matador
etc.) i.e. the put-upon businessman trying to do what's right for his family. He's awarded the bulk of the running time, which unfortunately means that the rest of the cast are left to jostle for attention - a shame, as cameos from the likes of Patricia Arquette and Luis Guzman are buried beneath the weight of the overlapping story threads. Johnson is at least fresh-faced and preppy, and it's when she teams up with some local eco-warriors to try and set free the UMP cows that the movie finally relents and cracks a smile (one clueless cohort reflects: "Next time we take cattle-prods. That was our only mistake"). Otherwise, it's thoroughly grim fare all round - the message that fast food is the root of all evil is burned into your skull with all the subtlety of a branding iron on a cow's arse.
Which brings us to the only opposing voice in the entire picture, that of Bruce Willis' meat buyer Harry Rydell. A fantastic extended cameo, Willis faces Don's allegations of meat contamination while tucking into a big sloppy sandwich, looking straight through him like he wasn't even there. Bizarrely, in a film that's so keen to demonise his industry, Harry is the character that speaks the most sense, expressing his dismay at the country's need to have everything sanitized and seran-wrapped when in fact it's doing us more harm than good. "It's a sad fact of life," he puts it to Kinnear's frazzled businessman, as defeated by his findings as we are, "but the truth is, we all need to eat a little bit of shit sometimes." If Linklater's oeuvre so far has been a gourmet meal, then Fast Food Nation might just be that suspect mouthful.