Friday, July 13, 2007

Fast Food Nation (Linklater)

I used to follow the Tomatometer religiously. Whenever a film had more than a 90% rating I would always assume that I almost absolutely had to see it. Likewise, whenever a film had anything less than 70% I would simply assume that it wasn't going to be very good, even if it looked kind of interesting or even if I liked the director. More and more I've been deviating from that line of reasoning, and more and more I've been rewarded with following my own "movie instinct." In short, I can guess what I'm going to like better than Rotten Tomatoes can.

Of course the Tomatometer is set up in such a way that every review, no matter how nuanced, is turned into either a "fresh tomato" or a "rotten tomato." This means that a movie like The Incredibles will get a 97% rating on the Tomatometer and a movie like I Heart Huckabees will get a 61% rating, simply because the former is very conventionally well-crafted and critics can tell very easily whether or not it achieved its objectives, whereas the latter is very genre-defying and not particularly easy to evaluate when applying the usual criteria. In short, it's not necessarily that critics tend to praise less adventurous films over more adventurous ones (although that might be part of it) so much as the Tomatometer makes it seem that way. After all, movie critics are paid to tell their readers, "You will find this movie enjoyable" or "You will be disappointed by this movie." But obviously Little Earl is not the typical moviegoer. He likes movies where he senses that a risk is being taken, or that something is at stake. He does not like movies that play exactly the way people "want them to." So the Tomatometer can only reflect his taste to a point. He's finally realized that he has to go with his gut.

Case in point: Fast Food Nation. I knew I liked Richard Linklater's work. When I heard he was making a fictional film based on a journalistic book, it sounded like it would be, at the very least, interesting. I had not read the book, but somehow that made me even more intrigued. Besides, it had a fascinating cast (Greg Kinnear, Bruce Willis, Luis Guzman, Catalina Sandino Moreno, Kris Kristofferson, Avril Lavigne[?!]). But when the movie came out, it got a 50% on the Tomatometer. Still, I could tell by the nature of even the rotten reviews (example: "In the end, viewers waiting for an emotional and/or dramatic payoff will be disappointed. As a call-to-arms, it's highly sympathetic but surprisingly mild-mannered.") that I would probably find the film a worthwhile rental. And guess what, folks? I was right.

Here are some other review excerpts:

"[A] sloppy, overarching fiction that tries to do too many things at once. It's like a three-ring circus in which none of the acts is terribly interesting."

"The fiction that Schlosser and the director Richard Linklater have extracted from the book is a mess, with narrative lines that go astray or simply wind up in the air."

"One leaves the theater certain what Linklater's theme was but uncertain why it was presented so ineffectively."

After watching the film, I would say that much of this is true. Nevertheless, I knew after the first ten minutes that I was watching a movie that was worth my time. I could immediately sense that it was about real people doing real things. I was seeing lives that were completely different from mine, lives that I knew nothing about, and yet these were lives that I wanted to experience. It may have been sloppy and ambitious but it was a real movie. I did not know where it was going to go, and that was more enjoyable than whether or not the film actually went somewhere. You could feel Linklater making the movie up as he went along, and while I'm almost positive that some people would want to insult this film with every epithet that they have in their arsenal, I personally found it a breath of fresh movie air.

Let me describe to you one of the opening scenes. A marketing exec named Don (played by Greg Kinnear) is in charge of a fast food burger named "The Big One." He gets called into the boss's office, he sits down and they exchange a few pleasantries. Then the boss begins to lean over and speak in a quieter tone:

"I have a friend that teaches food science over at A&M Microbiology, and this semester a couple of his grad students decided to culture a bunch of patties from fast food chains."
"Uh Huh."
"Well... they got ahold of a couple of Big Ones...the frozen patties? Don't ask me how. And the fecal coloform counts were just off the charts. I'm concerned that this could be a problem for us. Do you understand what I'm saying?"
"Not exactly."
"I'm saying there's the meat."

In a later scene Don visits a rachowner in Colorado (played by Kris Kristofferson). After a long, vague conversation, the ranchowner finally leans over and tells him, "By the way Don you seem like a nice fella. But the food your company sells is crap. Total crap. Even when there isn't manure in it." The ranchowner displays a wry smile.

People were intelligent in this movie. And nobody was a villain. Even the supposed villain said a lot of things that made absolute sense to me. I rarely eat fast food anyway so I didn't expect the film to change my dietary habits (it didn't). And there were definitely some scenes of slightly embarrassing quasi-liberal speechifying that I could have done without. But did it deserve a 50% on the Tomatometer?

I say no.


yoggoth said...

I'd actually completely forgotten about this movie before I read your post Little Earl. It does sound like one of those movies that may be flawed but is still worth watching.

Little Earl said...

Yup. It pretty much sank without a trace when it came out, but I think it'll be a rewarding experience twenty years from now, whereas Norbit, which topped the box office for two weeks...maybe not so much. To be fair, FFN was definitely not a "theater" movie, and with so many other Oscar contenders out at the same time, I took a rain check. But I made a mental note to rent it on video, and I think a film like this will have a long DVD life.

patrick said...

just watched Fast Food Nation, it's an impactful flick to say the least... earlier today i passed up a sausage mcmuffin because of it. Evidently it is worth passing up fast food for more than health reasons.