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20th Century Fox presents
"In a town like this, hope'll kill you."
DVD ReviewEric Schlosser's acclaimed book Fast Food Nation inflicted a nasty body blow to the dominant fast food industry and inspired countless readers to re-consider their eating habits. This material appeared to offer a perfect model for an incisive documentary about this nasty issue. Instead of taking this approach, Schlosser and Director Richard Linklater (Waking Life, Slacker) chose to develop a fictional picture that covered many of the book's essential themes. Their decision still promised to enlighten viewers about the stunning tactics of the fast-food industry. However, a fictional project created additional obstacles that could lessen its overall impact. The characters would serve as archetypes, but they needed to be engaging or audiences wouldn't care about their unfortunate situation.
Fast Food Nation weaves multiple narratives and a wide array of characters together into a single presentation. The first hour spends considerable time with Don Henderson (Greg Kinnear)—a marketing executive for Mickey's, a fast-food chain closely modeled after McDonald's. He created the idea for their latest burger hit, "The Big One," but grows concerned when indications appear that fecal matter is prevalent in the meat. Instructed by his boss to visit the processing plant in the fictional Cody, Colorado, Henderson initially believes everything looks aboveboard. However, meetings with a grizzled rancher (Kris Kristofferson) and a straight-talking supplier (Bruce Willis) reveal that he might not want to keep eating his employer's burgers. But can Henderson really do anything to change the system? Does the American public really want to see the truth about this cheap food? This film does not answer this question directly, but it raises doubts about our desire to truly seek the truth.
Another major storyline involves illegal aliens Raul (Wilmer Valderrama) and Sylvia (Catalina Sandino Moreno), a husband and wife who arrive in Cody with hopes of realizing the American dream. He finds work at the meat processing plant and works overnight in the grim atmosphere. During this time, he discovers nasty conditions that include rats, workplace injuries, and brutal overseers. However, they pay considerably more than jobs in Mexico, so Raul continues working there. Sylvia quickly decides to seek employment elsewhere, but unfortunate events lead her to disturbing conclusion. Another related character is bright high-schooler Amber (Ashley Johnson), who works at a local Mickey's. She does not seriously consider her nefarious employer, but a visit from an influential uncle (Ethan Hawke) changes her perspective. Amber hopes to make a difference, but idealistic actions may not be enough in today's overly corporate world.
During his eclectic career, Richard Linklater has succeeded in eliciting great compassion for a diverse collection of characters. Dazed and Confused inspired nostalgia for the idealistic '70s through the eyes of partying high-school students. School of Rock may be a formula picture, but it also makes both the adults and children highly sympathetic. His wonderful companion films Before Sunrise and Before Sunset consist largely of two intellectuals talking, but we love spending time with these characters. This picture offers an incisive topic that appears to provide him with plenty of chances to connect with the audience. Surprisingly, the characters never feel like real people and act more as symbols to exemplify the key messages. The actors perform well, particularly Kinnear, Valderrama, and Johnson, but they only generate mild interest for each individual's situation. The result is worth a viewing and succeeds to a certain point, but it never grabs attention to generate a lasting impression.
A grisly late sequence in Fast Food Nation takes us directly to the "killing floor," a grisly environment that appears to come straight out of a horror film. The cows are brutally killed, and low-paid workers must deal with internal organs while standing in nasty sludge. This sequence is shocking, but it actually provides less motivation to change than the lengthy descriptions offered in Schlosser's book. We're tempted to hide our faces from the bloody images, but the effect dissipates a short time after the viewing. The overall film has a similar consequence because its perspective feels a bit disjointed. Henderson disappears during the second half, and his final status undercuts his revelations. We never identify truly with this everyman; he simply acts as a conduit to learn about the issues. The camera maintains a cold distance from the on-screen events, and this detached approach lessens what could have been a possibly groundbreaking impact.
Rating for Style: B
Rating for Substance: B+
Image Transfer Review: Fast Food Nation includes a solid 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer that presents Linklater's vision in realistic fashion. The down-to-earth style is interesting, but it does include some grain that makes the picture less than pristine. There are no major distractions, but the filming approach lowers the grade slightly when compared to the best visual transfers.
Image Transfer Grade: B+
Audio Transfer Review: This release offers a 5.1-channel Dolby Digital track that effectively presents the bi-lingual story. The audio is clear and involving, but it lacks the power and complexity of the top-notch transfers. The music from the Friends of Dean Martinez does move well throughout the sound field, which helps to create an engaging presentation.
Audio Transfer Grade: B+
Disc ExtrasFull Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 28 cues
Subtitles/Captions in English, Spanish, French with remote access
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Director/writer Richard Linklater and Author/Screenwriter Eric Schlosser
The remaining features include a black-and-white photo gallery and four animated shorts that offer an entertaining look at the issue. Three of the shorts are episodes of The Meatrix—a humorous take-off from the popular film trilogy. Leo is a happy pig living on a farm, but his life changes when Moopheus reveals that his reality is false. Two clever sequels continue the story while making points about the horrid conditions for cows and the nasty parts of our fast food. The other entry is The Backwards Hamburger, which begins with a guy about to eat a burger in his sports car and then goes back to see its origins. Relevant stats quickly fly by the screen and reveal the troubling aspects of this type of food.
Extras Grade: B+
Final CommentsFast Food Nation sheds light on important issues that many people do not want to hear about. It becomes tougher to take your kids to McDonald's every week when you know about the company's practices. However, the film's story falls short of generating the emotional connection needed to make a huge impact. Schlosser and Linklater deserve credit for making the attempt, but if you haven't read the book, I would begin your education there.
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