It’s a strange year in cinema when the Richard Linklater film expected to succeed tanks and the Linklater film expected to tank succeeds. Instead of following through on the promise of its predecessor, A Scanner Darkly ended up overtly displaying the latent weaknesses deep beneath Waking Life’s richly animated layers; Fast Food Nation, contrarily, has little stylistic or thematic precedent in the Linklater oeuvre, portending — both in its chilly reception at Cannes and in its lifeless trailer — a hopeless career misstep. Yet FFN works. Venturing into the Saylesland of interlocking social realist narratives, Linklater faithfully fulfills co-writer and Fast Food Nation journalist Eric Schlosser’s bleak vision of American enterprise run amok.
Most impressive about Linklater’s depiction of the corrupting practices of the fast food industry is that its encompassing scope more often than not stays on the bearable yet still provocative side of didacticism. Connecting the dots from, among others, fictional burger joint Mickey’s marketer Greg Kinnear, meat packing plant and migrant workers Catalina Sandino Moreno and Wilmer Valderrama, and Mickey’s cashier-turned-activist Ashley Johnson, FFN — unlike, say, close cousin Syriana — actually retains a human dimension: not just a diagram, the film imparts the sense of lives shaped by the culture and marketplace wrought by unchecked corporate practices. Due to the inherent structural difficulties and often unwieldy range of such a project there can’t help but be a few gaping flaws (e.g., casting Avril Lavigne as an environmental crusader), but the raw, visceral power of certain images — most notably an unforgettable Fassbinder-inspired journey through a meat packing killing floor — are absolutely effective, as well as more substantial than anything from A Scanner Darkly.