'Fast Food Nation'
"Fast Food Nation" digests the meat we eat on the cheap and how exploitable labor helps maintain those low prices. Adapted by Linklater and Eric Schlosser from Schlosser's engrossing nonfiction book, the film wrestles with an enormous social issue and a large canvas. The results aren't always pretty, both in terms of technique and in the roughest of its slaughterhouse sequences, which suggest Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle" uprooted and replanted for a new century.
But Linklater's working-class mosaic is seriously interested in how most of this country gets by for a living. And that, sadly, makes it distinctive.
The movie concocts a story to bring the book's well-researched riffs on the multibillion-dollar fast-food racket into some kind of order. Greg Kinnear plays a marketing executive recently hired by Mickey's, the McDonald's-like multinational market dominator. He's assigned to leave the home office in Anaheim, Calif., to travel to Cody, Colo., a typical spread of drive-through emporiums surrounded by some houses and some mountains. The Mickey's exec is in Cody to check out rumors of the Mickey's meat containing trace amounts of manure.
Through Anderson's opaque, weary eyes we meet the spokes supporting into the wheel of the burger industry. Ashley Johnson is terrific as a bright, avid-eyed Mickey's counter worker, living at home with her single mother (Patricia Arquette). Inside the slaughterhouse supplying the Mickey's chain, a trio of Mexican nationals (Catalina Sandino Moreno, Ana Claudia Talancon and Wilmer Valderrama, all very affecting) encounter vicious sexual harassment and worse. Much of the film involves how these three, and others, cross illegally every week of every year and make the best of their sliver of America.
The screenplay isn't elegant. Kinnear's character drops out of the action for long stretches. Much of the dialogue struggles to place a wealth of exposition and factoids in the mouths of its characters. Ethan Hawke, in an expendable role, continues his campaign to drive us all a little nuts with his self-amused semi-improvisations. And Linklater isn't really your man for staging tense, grisly acts of violence, as in the worst of the slaughterhouse accidents.
"Fast Food Nation" works best when it's just hanging out with its far-flung collection of likable, flawed people living off the fat and the lean of the land. One of the best scenes has the high school counter worker joining an "environmental policy discussion group." She's wising up to the substandard conditions under which her patties are made at the local processing plant. The kids dare to embark on an act of cattle-pen sabotage, designed to let the cows run free. They don't run free. They stay put. The kids retreat, humiliated. Effective activism isn't easy.
In their respective directorial styles -- one fancy-gritty, the other casual on the surface but more vital underneath -- you cannot find two less similar films right now than "Fast Food Nation" and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's "Babel." Still, their underlying story structures are similar: Both engage with issues of globalization by way of a narrative daisy chain, teasing out a story based on a string of connected incidents borne of dire economic straits. Many will prefer the showy, tightly wound poetics of "Babel." I prefer the way Linklater locates his project on the planet known as Earth. The man who made the lovely romantic reveries "Before Sunrise" and "Before Sunset" has a way of letting a scene play out as if Linklater himself doesn't always know where it's going. He does, however, show consistent faith in his actors and the subject.