The vigorous muckraking sensibility that informed Eric Schlosser's 2001 nonfiction bestseller keeps this fictionalized screen version of "Fast Food Nation" bobbing along despite its overly slackerish narrative organization. Richard Linklater's rough-hewn tapestry of assorted lives that feed off of and into the American meat industry is both rangy and mangy; it remains appealing for its subversive motives and revelations even as one wishes its knife would have been sharper. Pre-sold title and contrarian perspective will play into the sympathies of hip, younger audiences, although a more pugnacious comic approach and emotionally bolstered drama might have helped Fox Searchlight push the picture to a more mainstream arena in planned fall release.
Making a shaped, involving film from Schlosser's intensively researched, highly popular expose of the junk food juggernaut in the United States repped a considerable challenge, and the author and Linklater have made eminently reasonable decisions about where to train their focus.
First half is led by Don Henderson (Greg Kinnear), an amiably inquisitive marketing veep for Mickeys, a burger giant that's riding the popularity wave of its top-of-the-line "The Big One." He is sent into the field by his boss to quietly investigate scientific findings that cow manure has turned up in the company's product.
Don's search for evidence takes him to Cody, Colo., home of the firm's enormous feedlots and meat packing plant. Town also reps the destination of truckloads of illegal Mexican immigrants, who are hired for the most disagreeable jobs at the superficially pristine slaughterhouse. A group of new arrivals under the eye of coyote Benny (Luis Guzman) prominently includes attractive, pliant Sylvia (Catalina Sandino Moreno), her wilder sister Coco (Ana Claudia Talancon) and Sylvia's b.f. Raul (Wilmer Valderrama).
Fast food culture is such an obvious target that Linklater might have decided just not to bother taking too many potshots for cheap laughs; perhaps the sight of Cody's main drag, dominated like so many other towns by personality-erasing chain restaurants and stores, is so numbingly demoralizing that it's now beyond humor.
But pic's multi-faceted structure so strongly brings to mind Robert Altman's ensemble community portraits that it's impossible not to imagine, and wish for, a more caustic, stinging social critique than the present film is able to muster.
Linklater's sensibility is far gentler, however, and his generosity extends not only to Don, who becomes progressively upset by what he learns, and the few-alternative illegals, but to such other characters as Amber (Ashley Johnson), a high schooler too bright to remain stuck as a cashier at Mickeys; Pete (Ethan Hawke), Ashley's rambunctious uncle who tries to encourage her to raise her sights, and Rudy (Kris Kristofferson), a longtime local rancher ideally positioned to illustrate to Don how things have changed for the (much) worse.
Offering a different perspective is cattle supplier Harry (Bruce Willis), who urges Don to take a pragmatic view of Mickeys' food contamination, pointing out that, "We all have to eat a little shit from time to time."
Inevitably, the nutritional problem and the drama lead literally to the bowels of the meat packing plant, where Sylvia ends up working. Scenes of the killing floor and the guts room will heavily reduce post-screening burger consumption, if not win a flood of converts to vegetarianism.
More to Linklater and Schlosser's point is the issue of big corporations' ability to easily take advantage of illegal workers through intimidation and denial of medical care.
All of these developments easily hold the attention, as do others involving a sisterly feud between Sylvia and Coco, the sexually predatory antics of plant supervisor Mike (Bobby Cannavale) and the inept efforts of local students to "liberate" cattle in a midnight raid on a feedlot; cows, they conclude, are dumber than they thought.
But Don disappointingly disappears at the half-way point, the characters played by Kristofferson and Willis, among others, pop up once and never return, and a developing subplot involving a couple of rebellious Mickeys workers plotting a robbery simply aborts. All this, along with relaxed pacing and a laid-back visual style, creates the sense of a laissez faire approach to storytelling, one that's not off-putting but nevertheless does not fully serve the attack mode suggested by Schlosser's systematic original approach.
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.
Camera (FotoKem color, 16mm-to-35mm), Lee Daniel; editor, Sandra Adair; music, Friends of Dean Martinez; production designer, Bruce Curtis; costume designers, Kari Perkins, Lee Hunsaker; (DTS/SDDS/Dolby); associate producers, Alexandra Stone, Sara Greene. Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (competing), May 18, 2006. Running time: 114 MIN.