It’s time for a painfully honest admission. I’ve hinted at it in previous posts, but could never bring myself to type it out. It might sound not-so-nice, but it doesn’t diminish my appreciation of Greg Kinnear. Don’t let it diminish yours. Are you ready? No, you’re not. I need to tell you that Greg accepts a lot of movie roles and doesn’t discriminate based on movie quality. He’s that good of a guy. He’s not concerned about padding his resume. He’s in it for the fun of it. In fact, Greg Kinnear stars in a lot of famous directors’ B or C or even D-list movies. There, I said it. I inserted it so casually you almost didn’t notice. Now you’re wondering what’s the big deal. There isn’t one. Greg’s great. Anyways, here are some examples:
- Mike Nichols directed The Graduate, an all-time classic movie that is #17 on the AFI’s top 100 movies. If this is Nichols’ A-list movie, What Planet Are You From? is his D-list movie and Greg stars in that one.
- Sam Raimi directed horror classics like The Evil Dead and Drag Me to Hell along with not-a-horror-classic The Gift. Guess which one Greg’s in.
- Garry Marshall directed Pretty Women, which is credited for reviving the rom com genre. He also directed Dear God, which is credited for being free to stream on HBO. Julia Roberts is in one of those movies and Greg is in the other, you connect the dots.
- Richard Linklater directed Boyhood–famous for being filmed over 12 years with the same cast–and School of Rock–famous for being the best comedy ever. Greg stars in not one, but two(!) of Linklater’s B-list movies: the remake of Bad News Bears and Fast Food Nation.
Today, we’re talking about Fast Food Nation.
Fast Food Nation (2006)
Everybody was ragging on the fast food industry in the early 2000s. First came Fast Food Nation the book, a nonfictional expose by Eric Schlosser. Then came the documentary Super Size Me, chronicling Morgan Spurlock’s 30-day quest to exclusively eat McDonald’s. This book/movie combo established a link between fast food & obesity while exposing the deceptive marketing campaigns, low wages, and unsanitary conditions of the fast food industry. In 2006, Linklater and his producers made the puzzling decision to adapt Fast Food Nation to the screen–as a fictional reimagining of the book. A documentary would have been 1000x better, as this “fictional” movie (A) has no plot and (B) features numerous preachy and tiresome monologues. But at least these monologues are made in cameos from really famous actors! Let’s recap the movie, then rank the most egregious cameos.
The movie follows three characters (Greg Kinnear, Ashley Johnson, and Catalina Sandino Moreno) whose parallel journeys explore different aspects of the fast food industry’s dark underbelly. Greg Kinnear is the marketing director for Mickey’s fast food, an obvious stand-in for McDonald’s. At the movie’s outset, he’s basking in the glory of inventing the hugely popular “Big One.” But this glory is short-lived as he’s sent to the small town of Cody, Colorado to investigate a report from a college group that Mickey’s hamburgers have “shit in the meat.”
Greg’s first order of business in Cody is to tour the slaughterhouse that sources Mickey’s meat. He finds the facility to be pristine and well-run. Continuing his investigations, Greg learns the tour only showed him the good parts of the slaughterhouse (*gasp*). He meets a rancher who explains how unsanitary conditions in the slaughterhouse easily result in fecal matter contaminating meat and details how the fast food industry drives down the price of cattle. Finally, Greg meets Bruce Willis (cameo #1!) who negotiated the price Mickey’s pays for meat from the slaughterhouse. Willis gives a long monologue about how (A) he negotiated a really low price, (B) it doesn’t matter that meat is contaminated, and (C) Greg’s boss is complicit. Feeling helpless, Greg calls his boss and suggests ‘minimal changes.’
Meanwhile, Ashley Johnson is a high school student in Cody working at Mickey’s with Paul Dano (cameo #2). Not to bury the lead, Ashley is the best part of this movie. Her earnest and sympathetic performance imbue her otherwise ridiculous character arc with emotional weight. Ashley considers quitting her job when Dano tells her that fast food joints in town are being robbed. She considers it more when her uncle (Ethan Hawke in cameo #3) visits. Ethan gives TWO(!) monologues telling Ashley (A) not to sleep around and get pregnant and (B) chain stores have overrun Cody so she needs to leave (as if other towns don’t have the same problem). Ashley quits Mickey’s and joins an anti-fast-food college group that includes Avril Lavigne (cameo #4). This group published the report on Mickey’s contaminated meat. Ashley calls the group to action and they cut the fences at the cow feed lot. But none of the cows leave the lot, foiling the plan.
Finally, the movie explores undocumented immigration through Catalina Sandino Moreno. Helped by Luis Guzman (cameo #5), she crosses the US/Mexico border with her sister and husband. The trio settles in Cody, where Catalina’s husband and sister work at the slaughterhouse. Her sister starts sleeping with the sleazy foreman to score drugs, while her husband suffers a work injury from the dangerous machinery. Catalina initially refused to work at the slaughterhouse, but once her husband becomes bedridden she must. She has sex with the foreman to procure a job, which is on the killing floor. The movie ends with nauseating scenes of cows being butchered.
Fast Food Nation places a heavy burden on the viewer to consider the dark side of fast food. But I would much rather learn the content of this movie in the original book. Now let’s rank the terrible cameos!
An Official Ranking of Cameos in Fast Food Nation
- Unimpeachable: Make no mistake, Avril Lavigne is a terrible actress and delivered all her lines poorly. BUT her songs like “Complicated,” “Girlfriend,” and “I’m With You” absolutely defined the early 2000s. At age 30, she battled Lyme’s disease. Now, she’s mounted a comeback with a somewhat-Christian album “Head Above Water” with very non-Christian cover art. Bad actress or not, don’t criticize this queen!
- Neutral: Luis Guzman was neither particularly noteworthy nor particularly not-noteworthy.
- Bad: Outside of his most famous movies (12 Monkeys, Sixth Sense, Die Hard), Bruce Willis’s career is depressing. Almost as depressing as watching him manhandle a large hamburger while talking about contaminated meat for an excessively long time.
- Really Bad: Paul Dano talked so much about robbing fast food restaurants, I thought he was going to do it. But no. The climax of his pointless cameo was spitting in a hamburger he makes for Greg.
- Beyond Terrible: Ethan Hawke’s monologues were simultaneously infuriating and nonsensical. He both stood in for Ashley’s absent father to teach her good morals and told her to rebel against the system–but not to rebel too much or she might get kicked out of college. I wanted to slap him.
Oh yeah, I should discuss Greg’s performance. It was alright. The script of Fast Food Nation didn’t allow for any of its actors to have range. Instead, Greg, Ashley, & Catalina just needed to look increasingly aghast as they learned more about the fast food industry. If you want to see Greg as essentially an investigative journalist, this movie’s for you. Greg’s ‘surprised look’ is quite good and he flexes it often here. Picture his eyes widening and his mouth dropping as he learns facts like “slaughterhouse conditions are unsanitary” or “Mickey’s made me sell my cattle for well below market value.” Or picture Greg gesticulating in disgust and imploring the speaker to stop talking when he learns precisely how beef can be contaminated with fecal matter. Now you have his whole performance! It’s no Mark Ruffalo in Spotlight or Zodiac, but Gumshoe Greg is respectable.
There was one of Greg’s scenes that I hated. In it, Greg calls his family from his hotel room in Cody. While Greg updates his wife, he watches pornography on TV with facial expressions indicative of a very guilty pleasure. The message of this scene seems to extend incrimination of the fast food industry to the personal lives of the employees themselves. As exemplified here, Fast Food Nation often blurred the lines between corporate injustices and personal failings–which rendered its protagonists less sympathetic and detracted from its message.
Since this post is list-heavy, I want to deviate from my typical summary ending. I’ll present the Kinnear Meter and end with a special list!
An Official Ranking of the Best Parts of Working at McDonald’s
Like Ashley Johnson in Fast Food Nation, my first high school job was at McDonald’s. For your reading pleasure, I rank my four favorite memories.
- My friend’s mom discovered I worked at McDonald’s when I was her drive-thru attendant. Getting the preemo job of working the drive-thru was worth the embarrassment. Think about it, mindlessly taking orders via a headset and pushing buttons on a cash register is infinitely better than cleaning the restaurant.
- A customer told me I looked like Justin Timberlake. My hair in high school looked like Frodo in Mordor, so I can only assume that I maintained a more professional look at McDonald’s. Makes sense.
- I worked at McDonald’s for 2.5 glorious months. I gave my two weeks’ notice after returning from a two week service trip. Asking for extended time off shortly after starting a job and then quitting shortly after returning to said job is a solid career move.
- My parents planned a surprise birthday party for me on a day I worked. But I misread my shift schedule because it was in military time, so the time I told my parents I got off was hours earlier than the time I actually got off. It’s always good to keep your guests waiting.
Next-up: The director of Auto Focus and I share an alma mater, so let’s follow high school reflections with college reflections!
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