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Movie Review **..: From the Slaughterhouse, With Love

...Fast Food Nation... Takes Another Look at Your Favorite Burger

By Minyoung Jang

Fast Food Nation

Directed By Richard Linklater

Written By Eric Schlosser

and Richard Linklater

Starring: Wilmer Valderram, Ethan Hawke, and Greg Kinnear

Rated R

Opens today

As someone who tries to be health-conscious, I often experience a momentary twinge of guilt when I step into a Burger King and order a burger smothered in a “special” sauce. I’m pretty good at ignoring my suspicion that I’m consuming large quantities of chemicals that would be unpronounceable if I wasn’t an MIT student. At least, that was until I watched Fast Food Nation, an expos on the “shit in the meat” of Mickey D’s and its cousins.

Although the movie is a fictional account inspired by the bestselling book (by Eric Schlosser) of the same name, director Richard Linklater was quick to note at last month’s press screening that it’s not a faithful adaptation or a documentary. Indeed, this is both one of the movie’s greatest strengths and weaknesses.

What made the book so powerful was that it portrayed how disturbingly pervasive the influence of fast food has been on America’s socioeconomic development. Spanning decades and an entire continent, it chronicles the industry’s role in creating a new type of economic subservience through its influence on the demise of independent local farmers, the stagnation of minimum wage, and the rise of franchising. Then there’s the commercialization of food and the dangerous rise in obesity rates.

In contrast, the movie focuses on only a few moments in the lives of a group of characters, in which fast food plays an integral role. A fast food company executive decides to investigate reports of E. coli contamination caused by “shit in the meat” by visiting the company’s meat supplier. Though he is shielded from hearing illegal immigrants voice their concerns about the dangerous working conditions at the meat packing plant, the audience is not. He also crosses paths with one of the company’s many high school employees, who begins to question the mentality of mindless obedience encouraged by her bosses and prevalent among her peers.

This “slice of life” approach that Linklater takes in his storytelling may be disappointing for those who have read the book, as it fails to capture the frightening scope of fast food’s influence that made the book effective. However, the appeal of this approach is understandable since it breaks a lengthy history down into more manageable bites better suited to the limited attention span of the average movie-goer. In theory, bringing the story down to a more personal level should also help us better relate to the characters. Unfortunately, this didn’t really happen given that the characters frequently felt like caricatures. In a character-driven movie, this is a problem.

I blame this on utterly predictable dialogue which even the talented cast couldn’t completely overcome. (I call the cast talented and the dialogue bad because although I cringed at what I was hearing, I found its delivery surprisingly sophisticated and nuanced.)

For almost an hour, the usual clich s about the fast food industry were interspersed with mildly amusing but rather juvenile jokes which seemed to have no other purpose than to find as many synonyms for excrement as possible. When Linklater could finally be bothered to write thought-provoking dialogue, he had his characters spew it out in diatribes reminiscent of the soliloquies prominent in Kevin Smith’s movies. While some of these came alive — most notably, Ethan Hawke’s inspirational speech — others felt forced and artificial, simply falling flat.

Initially, the dialogue situation was not helped at all by the campy photography and music, with garishly bright colors and images of the mundane remaining just that. Yet once Linklater finally started moving beyond bathroom humor and delving more into the grim situations the characters face, the contrast between the bright visuals and the bleak, dark story becomes an excellent metaphor. What better way to emphasize that the bright, shiny packaging of our favorite fast food joint is simply a cover for a reality more sinister than we could have ever imagined?

Why Linklater waited until the movie was half over to get to the meat of his story is beyond me, for the latter half is unmistakably powerful. For instance, the movie closes with a sobering montage of scenes from a real slaughterhouse in Mexico that makes you reconsider the conditions under which meat is processed in today’s world. To his credit, he also doesn’t attempt to wrap up the story with a happy ending, acknowledging that there is “no one simple answer.”

At the press screening, Linklater said one of his goals in producing this movie was simply to get people to think about the issues associated with the fast food industry. In this, he passes with flying colors. Weeks later, I’m still reluctant to eat a fast food burger and definitely have been thinking more about the politics behind food. Though the movie isn’t perfect, I highly recommend that everyone see it — then read the book.