Jeff Skoll is probably not a name you associate with Hollywood (if you know the name at all). A co-founder of Ebay, he has taken his billions of dollars and devoted himself to acts of philanthropy. When Skoll decided to form Participant Productions, a film company dedicated to socially relevant movies, people thought he was crazy.
Nevertheless, after only a few years, his issue-oriented production house has defied expectations with a slate of critically lauded and modestly profitable films. Good Night, and Good Luck, North Country, and Syriana racked up a slew of Oscar nominations and his low-budget investment in Al Gore's environmental slide show, An Inconvenient Truth, brought in an unexpected $35 million at the box office.
Participant's latest foray into social-issue cinema is Richard Linklater's adaptation of Eric Schlosser's devastating Fast Food Nation. Corralling the book's disturbing mountain of research into a fictional mosaic, Linklater follows in the footsteps of Steven Soderbergh's drug expose Traffic by threading together a trio of storylines that drive home the book's muckraking facts about commercial meat processing and America's obsession with fast food. Think of it as the Syriana of Happy Meals.
Linklater's trio of central storylines reveals the dark underbelly of corporate America, focusing on the all-beef patty as metaphor for global capitalism. There's the fast food marketing exec (Greg Kinnear) sent to a meat processing plant to investigate health problems namely fecal contamination only to find his conscience tested by the harsh realities of the business. Then there's the illegal Mexican couple (Sandino Moreno and Wilmer Valderrama) that sneaks across the border, finds jobs at a massive meat packing plant and falls prey to an exploitative manager (Bobby Cannavale) and insidious corporate policies. Finally there's the teenage burger cashier (Ashley Johnson) who, inspired by her idealistic uncle (Ethan Hawke), joins up with a group of student activists at the local college.
In one of the most vivid scenes, the young radicals attempt to free a herd of soon-to-be-slaughtered cows only to discover the action's futility.
For a while, Fast Food Nation keeps its head above water, relying on its energetic cast to maintain interest. Linklater does a terrific job of portraying the American factory town as a cultural dead zone where underpaid residents are turned into cowed consumers. From the crowded feedlots to the cookie-cutter strip malls, he depicts a society unable to comprehend how lives are being consumed by corporate America's endless appetite for profit. Particularly strong are his accusations that immigrants are little more than "fresh meat" for an industry that produces tainted goods.
But it isn't enough to overcome the film's dramatic inertia and simplistic ideology. While the story covers Schlosser's sprawling discoveries well, it lacks both the passion and outrage needed to sell his indictments. Known for his intimate, personal style of filmmaking, Linklater is an odd choice for this subject matter. His lethargic approach drains the film of immediacy and his characters too often come across as superficial and stereotypical. Absent the depth and nuance one would expect from Linklater's work, they become awkward mouthpieces for the movie's politics.
Though the form is popular now, the multi-thread message movie is nothing new. John Sayles (Matewan, Silver City, City Of Hope) has been producing work like this for years. What Sayles realizes, however, is that no matter the message, his characters and story must be sound. Compelling as the subject is, Linklater's execution leaves us thinking that Schlosser's provocative discoveries would have been better served by a documentary.
While Fast Food Nation wears its heart on both sleeves, it ends up preaching to the converted without ever getting to the heart of the question: Why is our culture so willing to eat food from corporations that work so hard to hide how it's made and where it comes from?
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].