Hard to Swallow

Fast Food Nation and Candy.

Greg Kinnear in Fast Food Nation 

It seems ungenerous to say anything unkind about Fast Food Nation (Fox Searchlight Pictures), Richard Linklater’s fictionalized version of the Eric Schlosser best seller about the junk-food industry. Linklater is an inspiring figure in the film industry: Without ever leaving behind his Austin, Texas, roots (or Austin itself), he’s spent the last 15 years quietly and cheerfully churning out what has now become an impressively varied body of work. You never know what he’ll do next, or whether it’ll work, but you know that it’ll be undertaken with passion and care. His animated adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly was, to my mind, the most successful translation yet of Dick’s work to the screen.

So, it’s too bad that Fast Food Nation never really brings together its two reasons for existing: to make us think, in nauseating detail, about the food we eat, and to tell the stories of some of the people who make it, market it, and sell it. Maybe it’s that Schlosser, who co-wrote the script with Linklater, is a better muckraker than he is a storyteller. Schlosser’s book is a terrific read, but it’s episodic in nature, with one chapter set on the killing floors of a slaughterhouse, the next in the flavor labs where chemists fine-tune the smell and taste of french fries and milkshakes. Trying to turn all this reporting into a coherent two-hour-long feature film is like using the ground meat from dozens of cows to produce a single burger (one of the many dangerous industry practices Schlosser assails in the book).

The film’s closest thing to a protagonist is Don Anderson (Greg Kinnear), a marketing executive for a fast-food chain that goes by the barely lawsuit-proof name of Mickey’s. He’s summoned by his boss to be told that the E. coli counts of the new Mickey’s Big One burger have been reading off the charts. Or, to put it more bluntly, “There’s shit in the meat.” So, Don heads to Colorado to investigate the Mickey’s meat-processing plant. In another story, a singularly attractive group of illegal immigrants (they include Maria Full of Grace’s Catalina Sandino Moreno and That ‘70s Show’s Wilmer Valderrama) cross the border with a coyote (Luis Guzmán) who promises them jobs in that same plant.

On the retail end of the Mickey’s machine is Amber (Ashley Johnson), a teenager in Cody, Colo., who works at a Mickey’s outlet for extra cash. There, she’s mooned over by a fellow burger-flipper (Paul Dano, riffing on the sullen rebel he played in Little Miss Sunshine) and regarded as managerial material by her boss (Esai Morales). At home, Amber’s single mother (Patricia Arquette) and lefty uncle (Ethan Hawke, clearly standing in for Linklater and Schlosser as the movie’s voice of reason) debate the merits of her job: Is she learning responsibility and good work habits, or just peddling poison in Nowheresville?

Fast Food Nation is full of incident but devoid of momentum. Amber joins an environmental group at her school and stages an ill-conceived protest at the processing plant. One of the immigrants, Coco (Ana Claudia Talancón) starts an affair with a gringo floor manager at the plant (Bobby Cannavale). Good actors drift in and out in small parts: Kris Kristofferson as an old-school cattle rancher, Bruce Willis as a sleazy industry middleman. Cows are herded up, shot, skinned, and sorted, for real, in stomach-churning footage from the killing floor. (That disclaimer about no animals being harmed won’t apply to this movie—but, then again, the cows Linklater is filming were going to die anyway.)

Linklater may be trying for an Altman-esque atmosphere of loose, overlapping ministories (a structure he used beautifully in his still-fresh 1991 debut, Slacker), but the effect here is more like John Sayles. This is well-crafted, laudable, socially engaged filmmaking that limps to the finish line in lead boots. Virtually every story line can be reduced to a didactic argument: In order to keep their jobs, fast-food executives are encouraged to turn a blind eye to health and safety issues. Meat plants hire lawyers to prevent workers from collecting on personal-injury claims. All of these facts are alarming, depressing, and indisputably true, and if you rush out of the theater energized to do something about them, then perhaps the movie has done its job. (The movie’s credits end with a URL address you can visit.) But even if you swear off burgers forever, it won’t make Fast Food Nation’s characters come to life.

To watch Candy (THINKFilm), the Australian junkies-in-love film starring Heath Ledger and Abbie Cornish, is to find yourself immersed, however unwillingly, in your own private celebrity gossip blog. How much of a role did Cornish (a cotton-candy blonde with a disarmingly childlike demeanor) play in the Reese Witherspoon-Ryan Phillippe breakup? Was it tough for Ledger to film the scenes in which awful things happen to the pregnant Cornish, given that his own wife, Michelle Williams, was expecting their daughter (Matilda, don’t you know?) at the time of filming? It feels unseemly to be pondering these questions as you watch Ledger and Cornish spiraling down the black hole of heroin addiction, but is it the viewer’s fault they’re attractive public figures with happening sex lives?

Candy is a grim little fable of folie à deux, impeccably acted—especially by the ever more impressive Ledger. But the movie’s three chapters (titled Heaven, Earth, and Hell) trace a trajectory that’s too familiar to move us as it wants to. Whether in Sid and Nancy, Rush, or Requiem for a Dream, it’s not the first time we’ve watched beautiful young people throw their lives away (while somehow remaining young and beautiful, only with less makeup). Geoffrey Rush is fine as a gay drug dealer who serves as an enabling Santa Claus to the doomed couple. But in the end, Candy is a little too sweet and not quite harmful enough to the audience’s health. I’d like to add a warning that no pregnant woman should watch this movie. It contains one image that no one with a baby in her tummy will ever forget, however much she might like to.