Oeuvre is an in-depth examination of the entire body of work of an important director.
By the time Richard Linklater’s take on Fast Food Nation appeared – four months after his similarly political adaptation A Scanner Darkly, five years after the book was released – Eric Schlosser’s incisive industry tell-all had already attained near-epic stature as the most complete work of culinary muckraking since The Jungle a century earlier. This status only furthered the impression of the book as a work that, if not exactly unfilmable, had no business being on the screen; the operative question around the film’s release was not ‘how’ but ‘why.’ It’s a question that still lingers, even after having seen the film.
Dramatizing such a sprawling piece of source material seems like a foolish decision, especially in the comprehensive style Linklater has attempted. But like a lot of the director’s noble failures, there’s a humanism that makes Fast Food Nation almost disarmingly viable, at least in the early stages. He’s great at interpersonal relations, bringing a warm humanism to the character introduction scenes that make up the film’s first act. But that doesn’t make him Robert Altman, and the ensemble structure attempted here never really gets off the ground. Like the fast food burgers it nudgingly de-appetizes, Fast Food Nation is packed with things it doesn’t really need, empty calories and puzzling filler.
A top down approach to the fast food industry would seem to at least offer opportunities for insight, but Linklater’s attempt fails not for mishandling but because it doesn’t have the time to bear down on hard facts. Short of telling things we would already know from the book, it tells us things we already know wholesale as a culture: Mexican workers are mistreated, working at a fast food restaurant stinks, corporations don’t care if their food is crappy (literally) as long as people eat it.
The inability to rein in this scattershot approach makes the burger comparison almost too fitting. Some of these storylines could have made good movies on their own. Some of them might have made bad ones. But lumped together they don’t communicate the lay of the land as much as blend mushily together. The climactic scene, which attempts to tie up these loose threads by taking us into the bowels of the slaughterhouse kill floor is disgusting but not very shocking,
The scenes that precede this mark a near-total loss of focus for the film, where it abandons the forward momentum of its personal stories and erodes into dreary speechifying. Ethan Hawke shows up as a thin avatar for Linklater himself, the literal embodiment of the ‘cool uncle,’ who incites his young niece’s political activism with a few pre-rehearsed speeches. Hawke’s appearance is a definite mile-marker, signaling the transition from slightly flawed industry study to rhetoric-sodden dragfest. Here Linklater surrenders to his worst repeat impulse: using teenagers and man-children as mouthpieces for his uninteresting political ideas. An increased tendency toward stunt casting (is that Avril Lavigne?) only furthers the impression of the third act as an unmitigated disaster.
It’s almost funny that Fast Food Nation as messy and unsophisticated a film as Linklater has ever produced, stands as his only one nominated for the top prize at Cannes. It didn’t win, but like Fahrenheit 9/11, which took the Palme d’Or two years earlier, its stocked with the kind of brash qualities – huge scope, insider trashing of supposed American values, bloated non-analysis of hot-button issues – that seem to blind the festival to bad filmmaking. But despite its bold attempt at taking on fast-food culture Fast Food Nation is a largely unsatisfying failure, a weak companion to Schlosser’s great book.