Based on the best-selling book of the same name Fast Food Nation has three intertwined stories revolving around the fast food industry. Don Anderson (Greg Kinnear) is a corporate marketing guy assigned to put a positive spin on the bad news that fecal traces has been found in the meat. He goes to the meat factory to investigate and doesn’t like what he sees but no one offers him a viable solution. Then there’s Raul (Wilmer Valderrama) and Sylvia (Catalina Sandino Moreno) Mexican immigrants who cross the border illegally. The only job they can get is in the meat factory. She bears with demeaning sexual advances while he faces the unhealthy and dangerous conditions to try for the American Dream. Finally we meet Amber (Ashley Johnson) who works in a local franchise. She’s just a high school girl trying to pay for her car insurance. This isn’t her future but it dominates her present. The corporate story is a comedy about ineffective management and media spin. The immigrants’ story is a hard drama about a bad life. Amber’s story straddles both lines--a slacker teen comedy but also introspective about what the job is doing to her soul. It may be no secret these days but it’s still fascinating. There is plenty of juicy dialogue for actors to sink their teeth into (pun intended). Kinnear plays the corporate suit as lovably as possible. He’s the put-upon business cog similar to his characters in The Matador and Little Miss Sunshine but funnier because it’s the system that’s futile not his own dreams. Valderrama has a smaller part just supporting his wife going through a horrible life with noble determination. Moreno is as heartbreaking as she was in her Oscar-nominated performance in Maria Full of Grace. You sense so much potential in her and she’s stuck in the factory demeaned by sexual harassment and unable to save her sister from succumbing to it. She adds new colors of despair to the immigrant experience. Johnson is careful not to make her character too wise beyond her years. She really is just a normal kid. High school sucks so do counter jobs. It’s not about being unique just relatable. Cameos stand out too. Ethan Hawke plays the coolest uncle ever. He comes to town for two scenes spouts off his cool-uncle advice and then leaves. Even though he’s a self-confessed loser he’s convincing. And he buys her beer. Bruce Willis gives a speech on the meat industry with his David Addison smirk while chomping into a burger. We’re sold. Director Richard Linklater does a good job keeping the comedy and drama balanced. He cuts back and forth between stories at sensible intervals. Towards the end Greg Kinnear disappears for a long time but Ashley Johnson’s story beefs up to compensate. Showing the inner workings of the meat factory is pretty powerful. Cow guts falling out and bodies mangled by machinery are not fun things to watch but they are important to remember. It’s all up there on the screen but not gratuitous—and doesn’t have to ruin meat forever. Just think how all foods have processes that we don’t see and still taste good. There are plenty of scenes in which the characters are talking a real Linklater specialty (Before Sunset Before Sunrise for example). Whether they’re talking about meat or minimum wage jobs or life ambitions the conversations have a catchy flow. The satire of corporate America and slacker lifestyles juxtaposed against the drama of immigrant life makes Fast Food Nation both ridiculously funny and appropriately uncomfortable.
Jack and Terry (Mark Ruffalo and Laura Dern) are an unhappy couple stifled by years of sullen barely concealed rage Jack's inertia and Terry's drinking. Their friends Hank and Edith (Peter Krause and Naomi Watts) are similarly miserable with each other which they act out through barely concealed affairs. As Jack and Edith begin their illicit tryst they instinctively seek to pair up Hank and Terry partly to make it easier for them to sneak around but mostly to alleviate their own guilt. So the two couples basically substitute one rut for another wheels spinning in the muddy morass of their own confused attempts at adulthood. Through it all their children become a sort of juvenile Greek chorus for their parents making the kinds of precocious pronouncements that are only uttered from the mouths of screenwriters.
As joyless as the movie is to sit through the acting is brilliant. Krause (Six Feet Under) tosses his nonchalance around as an impenetrable shield caring so little that he's impossible to wound. Ruffalo (Collateral) who is the most (and probably the only) human of the quartet provides the only thing approaching a moral center. And even in this company Dern manages to act circles around them. Her Terry is a definitive portrait of the party girl who finally wakes up hung over one morning only to discover she's got two kids to feed a house to clean and a husband who'd rather talk than make love. To her love means always having to admit you're desperate. So it's sad and chilling to watch her begin her affair with Hank only because in her own twisted way she thinks her husband wants her to.
Watts is still the most compulsively watchable actress working today summoning reserves of inner turmoil on cue and yet always making it look effortless. It is interesting to contrast her role here with her work in the far superior and brilliantly written 21 Grams. Both characters are deeply unhappy people trying to make sense of the cruel world. And yet 21 Grams which is much unhappier and more despondent achieves a sublime grace as each character discovers their humanity in their desperation. In this movie you just hope that at some point the four main characters will jump in an SUV that has faulty brakes.
The two men are college professors and the movie makes the most of that milieu with flirtatious students college bars and long leafy runs providing the backdrop. But most of the movie's plotting feels like its been done on graph paper. Jack and Terry make love. Cut to Hank and Edith making love. Jack talks to his daughter. Cut to Edith talking to her daughter. The rhythm of this duet becomes numbing. The movie is directed by John Curran an Australian making his first American feature. But the impetus for the story comes from screenwriter Larry Gross adapting two short stories by Andre Dubus who wrote In the Bedroom. Dubus' movie characters are all variations on the same emotionally stifled yuppie theme although In the Bedroom saved itself by turning into an old-fashioned revenge melodrama. We Don't Live Here Anymore is one of those movies and there have been oodles where the characters are so inert that the suspense if one can call it suspense is who will act first to break the circle of despair. And so the children of course are trotted out as pawns on the chessboard forcing the kings and queens to choose. I don't know which is more depressing: that this movie cliché has been used so often or that there are undoubtedly thousands of couples in the world who act exactly like this.