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Fast Food Nation

Eric Schlosser's non-fiction 2001 book Fast Food Nation served as a rallying point for those concerned about the prevalent role that fast food restaurants have come to play in the workings of Western economics and culture. Written with wit and charm, Schlosser's findings were disheartening — an overlarge portion of America's economy has come to rely on the mass production and consumption of junk food, and that food's not only a danger to the health of those who eat too much of it, but to those who work in the processing plants, toil at the minimum-wage jobs that the industry relies upon, and to the world's air, water, and soil. It was a fascinating read, and a disturbing one — but how could it possibly be made into a feature film in any manner other than a documentary? Director Richard Linklater chose to work with Schlosser on a fictional story that would look at a number of people whose lives and livelihoods are part of the fast food machine. While it's not always successful, it's an interesting examination of the unpalatable origins of our Whoppers and Big Macs.

Linklater's Fast Food movie covers all of Schlosser's bases, but is surprisingly anemic in its execution. We follow an executive for the fictional Mickey's fast-food company, Don Anderson (Greg Kinnear), as he investigates claims of E. coli in the patties coming from a Colorado meat-packing plant, his visit converging with a group of illegal Mexican immigrants working at the plant and a teenager who works at Mickey's until she becomes involved with college activists. It's a well-meaning film, but one gets the sense that Linklater was so concerned with turning off his audience to his message that he soft-pedals everything, even though this is a story ripe for scathing satire. The plot involving the immigrants is the most interesting from a storytelling standpoint, showing the payoff to the coyotes who bring them across the border and then pack them like cattle into small hotel rooms before dropping them off at jobs at motels, meatpacking plants, and Wal-Marts. But much of the movie is devoted to getting the facts of fast food's corrupt business practices and dangerous policies across through lengthy lectures given by secondary characters, and it gets a little dreary. Linklater, director of Before Sunrise and Waking Life, adores the art of the monologue, but even Bruce Willis in a cameo doesn't distract from the fact that Schlosser and Linklater are lecturing us with facts and figures. While much is made of the horrors of the meat plant's killing floors, by the time we actually see them for ourselves (and the inevitable death-by-grinder scene) they're presented with such nonchalance that they have little impact. Overall, Fast Food Nation just doesn't quite work — by attempting to make this important information palatable to the masses, Linklater and Schlosser defanged their message to the point that it has minimal impact. Those interested in the topic are better off reading Scholsser's book instead.

Fox's DVD release of Fast Food Nation offers a solid anamorphic transfer (1.85:1), which does a fine job with Linklater's deliberately grainy, often washed-out color palette. The DD 5.1 audio (English, with English, French or Spanish subtitles) is very good. Extras include a commentary track by Linklater and Schlosser, which ranges from technical notes on the filming and the acting to discussions on the film's issues. "Manufacturing Fast Food Nation" is a very nice behind-the-scenes featurette (55 min.), while other extras include three Flash cartoons that originally appeared in the Internet titled "The Meatrix" (in which a cow named Moo-pheus takes a pig on a trip through the manufacturing process) and  another animated short called "The Backwards Hamburger (3 min.), plus a stills gallery. Keep-case.
—Dawn Taylor

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