Food for thought

“Fast Food Nation,” the exhaustively researched best-seller by Eric Schlosser, became something of an overnight sensation in 2001 with its vivid and frightening account of the inner workings of American food-industry titans like McDonald’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken and Taco Bell. More than merely exploring the origins of our obesity epidemic, it suggested, with compelling evidence, that the institutions putting fast, easily affordable food on our trays have profoundly affected the nation’s political, economic and physical landscape, often with undesirable results.

Perhaps Schlosser and director Richard Linklater considered it their civic duty to repackage “Fast Food Nation” in a manner more easily digestible for the masses. Or perhaps they simply wanted to capitalize on the runaway success of the book. Whatever the case, the results are decidedly mixed. “Fast Food Nation” might have translated into a compelling documentary, the kind of take-no-prisoners polemic favored by Michael Moore. Instead, they have used Schlosser’s research as a springboard into a sluggish fictional narrative that merely hints at the grim reality.

There are many characters wandering in and out of “Fast Food Nation”, each representing a cog in the industry. There’s Bob (Greg Kinnear), an executive at fictional burger chain Mickey’s. He is appalled by the conditions at his company’s meat-packing plant — cow manure has been found in the food — and is equally shocked by the corporate response: utter apathy. Then there’s Jorge (Wilmer Valderrama), an illegal immigrant who mops upblood, guts and feces at the plant, occasionally chasing rats away from the machinery that produces America’s meals; Mike (Bobby Cannavale), a plant supervisor who exchanges jobs and drugs for sex; and Amber (Ashley Johnson), a liberal-minded Mickey’s cashier who begins to question the ethics of her work.

None of these characters is thoroughly developed, but that’s beside the point. “Fast Food Nation” isn’t interested in telling their stories so much as using them to regurgitate points made in Schlosser’s book. Some dutifully recite the facts, enumerating the ways that McDonald’s — whoops, Mickey’s — has effectively declared war on the environment and the nutritional welfare of its patrons. (Ethan Hawke, as Amber’s hip uncle, delivers a brief sermon about fast food’s homogenizing effect on urban culture, then vanishes.) Others exist to illustrate the toll the fast-food industry takes on its employees. Jorge, for instance, suffers a debilitating injury on the job and is promptly cut loose, as big-industry lawyers protect their corporate bosses by weeding out the damaged goods.

If the goal of “Fast Food Nation” is to discourage people from eating Big Macs, it succeeds, at least momentarily. It’s hard to imagine anyone witnessing the graphic slaughter of a cow and leaving the theater with an appetite for cheeseburgers. But the story is too disjointed and unimaginatively rendered to leave a truly lasting impression.

Movie review

Fast Food Nation ??½

Starring Wilmer Valderrama, Catalina Sandino Moreno, Ana Claudia Talancón, Greg Kinnear, Ashley Johnson, Patricia Arquette

Written by Eric Schlosser and Richard Linklater

Directed by Richard Linklater

Rated R

Running time 114 minutes

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