Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Fast Food Nation

The verdict: Great cast, not so great a script. A ‘Fast Food’ version of the book.
The rating: 6/10

The Book-to-movie adaptation is a unique type of media experience for the audience member. There is a certain idiosyncratic familiarity that can be enjoyed when reading a book over the course of twenty hours or so, allowing the reader to develop an intimate knowledge of characters, situations and plot developments. This type of experience has traditionally been difficult to replicate in a two hour movie. However, translations from printed page to silver screen have had no shortage of successes in the past, and show no sign of letting up in the future. Think the ‘Lord of The Rings’ trilogy of course, but also a long list including, among many others ‘The Shining’, ‘Schindler’s List’, and, um, ‘The DaVinci Code’. (Hmm… only because it made a shed-load of cash, I’ll allow that last one – Ed).

However, this type of movie adaptation can trigger visceral reactions from fans of the book. A classic example of this was the screen version of ‘American Psycho’, which made an enjoyable dark comedy experience out of a book considered by many to be repulsive at worst, and almost entirely unfilmable at best. The movie ended up more of a companion piece to the book, providing a deeper understanding of the main character’s story, and also produced a fantastic performance from Christian Bale.

'Fast Food Nation' is a curious type of book-to-movie adaptation, and one that most likely would fall into this companion piece category. For the uninitiated, Eric Schlosser's book was a didactic, well-researched account of all that is wrong with the American fast food industry, establishing links between the burger joint production line, and various aspects of the cultural fabric of the United States. From high-powered marketing executives, to cattle ranchers and Mexican slaughterhouse labourers, all the way down the chain to high school kids flipping burgers to earn a few bucks, and the millions of happy customers chowing down on big macs every day, the book is far-reaching and extremely informative. As each chapter draws to a close, the gathering weight of the overall conclusion rolls on relentlessly, and almost operates as a guide to quitting Big Macs, in the same manner as Allen Carr’s ubiquitous guide to quitting smoking. By the time the reader has finished the book, it is unlikely s/he will be rushing into a Mickey D’s or BK in the near future.

In the book, strong links are forged between the product offered by these fast food joints and many insidious cultural problems faced by Average Americans, such as obesity, employment issues and the pervasion of big corporation marketing into schools, with companies such as Burger King and Dr. Pepper sponsoring underprivileged schools to build 'lifelong consumers of the brand'.

However, Richard Linklater's adaptation - which was co-written with Schlosser - is a dramatisation, foregoing the obvious possibility of a documentary approach for a more character-driven story with a traditional narrative. (He does still talk about the shit in the meat though - Ed)

In what now seems to be the mandatory narrative structure of choice these days, 'Fast Food Nation' is three stories in one, with each separate vignette following the progress of characters involved in the fast food industry, albeit in very different ways.

Raul (Wilmer Valderrama), Sylvia and Coco are Mexican immigrant labourers, risking a hazardous border crossing for the prospect of work. Don Henderson (Greg Kinnear) is a marketing executive for a large – fictitious – fast food chain named Micky’s, and is enjoying unprecedented success with their latest beefy offering: ‘The Big One’. Meanwhile, Amber (Ashley Johnson) is an honest middle-class high-school kid working in her local Micky’s to earn the few bucks to help her get by, and possibly help out her mom, played by Patricia Arquette.

Although you might remember Wilmer Valderrama from ‘That 70’s Show’ (Fez!? Dude, no way! .. ahem – Ed), he’s actually quite good in this, albeit playing an everyman character, but he’s an honest guy with good sense, who just happens to be swallowed up by the meat-packing industry, and does his best to cope. This storyline is the device to allow the camera to poke around the slaughter-house, and although these scenes are the most horrifying in the movie, the characters themselves were a little caricatured for my liking.

Amber’s story takes a turn when she receives a visit from her uncle, played by Ethan Hawke. He encourages her to think twice about working for a company such as Micky’s, and his coherent arguments re-evaluate her choice to work for Micky's, a choice driven simply by the fact that it was the first job she could find.

Greg Kinnear’s story is the most implausible at the outset, and although he’s a great actor, and does well enough with the subject matter, this story is really just a device to allow the corporate side of the fast food industry to be lampooned. He visits a rancher (Kris Kristofferson) and talks to a rep from the meat-packers (played very well by Bruce Willis) and his journey enlightens him as to the type of corporation he’s working for.

As a political piece of work, ‘Fast Food Nation’ is brave, daring even, for it is challenging one of the foundation industries of the United States, and encouraging people to do the unthinkable – think. Amber’s story, the most interesting of the three for me, involves an intense period of learning and questioning for the young girl, and is possibly the only one of the three that produces any kind of positive outcome. Unfortunately, it becomes a little mired in political sensitivities towards the end, with Avril Lavigne’s character in particular providing an unwelcome addition to an otherwise very watchable support cast (including Paul Dano, who you might remember from ‘Little Miss Sunshine’).

So, it may be politically brave, but the ultimate question is, is it a good piece of movie entertainment? Well, unfortunately, it left me a little cold. I felt that, for the most part, the stories explored in the movie were a little lightweight, losing much of the power of the arguments presented in the book of the same name. Also, by presenting this story in an easily digestible package such as this, I felt as if the film was ultimately nothing more than a fast food version of the square meal the book had so capably delivered.

So instead of hanging around to watch Jeremy Thomas get presented with his Volta award after the Dublin Film Festival screening, PCMR decided to head off for a Whopper meal on the way home instead. (Dude, totally sick burn! – Ed)

1 comment:

CreditThinker said...

Thank you for a great review of a not-so great movie. I totally agree with you about the book as well.

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