As the film opens, it's another great day at Mickey's, a popular fast-food joint: Clean-scrubbed families are happily ingesting their Mickey's Big Ones and fries. The camera zooms in, closer and closer, till an entire hamburger patty fills the screen: It looks greasy, unappetizing and less like food than you'd hope. It sure proves the old maxim that if you do eat fast food, you should never look at it too closely.
You won't have that luxury in Richard Linklater's Fast Food Nation -- which, besides ripping the bun off the patty, shoves our heads behind the shiny plastic curtain of fast-food marketing so we can see the real costs wrought by those millions of Big Ones, Big Macs and Whoppers. It's a profile of what your hamburger is, where it came from and who suffered on its way to you.
For source material, Linklater teamed with Eric Schlosser, who wrote the eponymous best-selling 2001 muckraker about the fast-food industry. Tackling the material as an ensemble drama, the two have constructed three interconnected fictionalized stories designed to illustrate aspects of the book's sweeping exposé.
Our primary guide is Don (Greg Kinnear), a cheerful can-do marketing guy for Mickey's. (Like most of us, he knows that fast food isn't so great, but he enjoys eating it, and what's the harm?) When some of Mickey's frozen burger patties test positive for E. coli (source: shit of an undetermined origin), Don is sent from the sunny California boardroom to drab Cody, Col., tasked with checking out the meat-processing plant that provided the patties.
A second thread follows of group of illegal immigrants, from a crossing of the Mexican border with coyote Benny (Luis Guzman) to jobs at the Uniglobe meat-packing plant in Cody. For Sylvia (Catalina Sandino Moreno, from Maria Full of Grace) and Raul (Wilmer Valderrama), the tough, demeaning work at the plant is a necessary evil in their hopes for a better life. Less patient, Sylvia's sister Coco (Ana Claudia Talancón) gambles her opportunities on a liaison with the plant's tyrannical supervisor, Mike (Bobby Cannavale).
Also living in Cody is Amber (Ashley Johnson), a smart teen-ager who helps supplement her single mom's income by working as a cashier at Mickey's. Amber's a blank slate; encounters with her free-spirited uncle (Ethan Hawke) and some environmentally conscious college students cause her to re-examine her seemingly innocuous job.
The narrative technique attempts to humanize, albeit mostly through stereotypical roles, the complex institutional problems that Schlosser detailed in his book: the exploitation of migrant workers; the disaffected teen-labor pool the industry relies on; and the monolithic influence giant corporations like Mickey's can wield over tiny towns and agribusiness alike. Throughout the film, the melding of drama and information makes an awkward marriage, such as when an already slim story halts for a discourse about acceptable levels of fecal matter ("There's always been a little shit in the meat," a company man explains to Don), or when everyday conversations take an odd turn into statistics.
Some outrages are presented with less drum-banging, and go by so quick you might miss 'em: Mickey's test-markets its new "Itty Bitties" at Martin Luther King Elementary (code for using poor urban black children as unwitting guinea pigs); the safety-training videos the Spanish-speaking plant workers watch are in English; a town is redefined by strip-mall architecture with no sidewalks for pedestrians.
Linklater's earnestness also results in an emptying-the-fridge effect whereby it feels like every social, political, economic, environmental and cultural ill is on Mickey's plate. Artificial flavors, the Patriot Act, employee-driven crime, sexual harassment, meth labs, eminent domain, puppy mills, civil disobedience and the futility thereof -- these are relevant issues, but appear disjointed without the context of the book's extensive research. Fast Food Nation, the film, isn't a complaint just about the food industry, but about the blanding and corporatizing of everything, and how we're all either happy robots controlled from Madison Avenue or anti-progress malcontents whose tiny railing voices are never heard.
Committed primarily to spreading the news, the film's artificial plots never surprise us. Fast Food Nation is a serialized polemic: It lacks both the depth of information a documentary might have provided and the emotional connection of a more focused narrative. Either approach might have given this work more of a gut-punch. Instead, it's like reading a comic-book version of history -- a scattering of facts amid entertaining pictures.
I suppose if the film makes viewers and fast-food consumers consider even a few of the issues it skims across, that's a fine thing. (To see the monster in its entirety, read the book: It's a good deal more shocking.) What we gain in convenience and low price in our fast-food nation hides costs that are borne by other people, and in ways that may not be immediately obvious yet ultimately affect us all.
Early on, when an offhand remark is made about the meat-packing facility's "kill floor" and how the workers there toil ankle-deep in blood, you just know that's where one of our unlucky workers is gonna end up. What's less expected is that we see it. Linklater shot the Uniglobe scenes at a meat-processing plant in Mexico, slaughter and all. Proceeding from that cheerful opening shot of Mickey's, Fast Food Nation eventually shows you exactly how your burger is related to a shit-covered cow whose guts are spilled by an exploited migrant worker. We know this already, though I have to admit, it's something else to watch. In English, and some Spanish, with subtitles.
Starts Fri., Nov. 17.