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click to enlarge Greg Kinnear will have a Big One with a side of E. coli.
  • Greg Kinnear will have a Big One with a side of E. coli.

Fast Food Nation (R)

Kimball's Twin Peak


There are those, I'm certain, who heard about Eric Schlosser's 2001 nonfiction book Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal and decided, based solely on the title, that they would have nothing to do with it. In all likelihood, these were people who expected the investigative piece to be an anti-meat polemic and heaven forbid that anyone in America should expose himself to ideas he's already convinced are wrong.

What those sight-unseen haters missed was, in fact, a deeply humanistic piece of writing, one that showed as much respect for franchise restaurant pioneers like Ray Kroc and Carl Karcher as it did for the family ranchers watching corporate agribusiness destroy their way of life. Fast Food Nation was a far more natural candidate for translation to fictional narrative than you might expect, since at its core it was a "people story."

And director Richard Linklater, conveniently enough, is a "people story"-teller. Yet there's a level on which Linklater's sensibility and Schlosser's never quite seem to synch in Fast Food Nation. For Schlosser, shooting the bull is an industrial paradigm; for Linklater, it's a conversational one. And the film often finds itself at an awkward intersection between theoretical musings and concrete political urgency.

Most of the film takes place in and around a nondescript Colorado suburb that is home to a massive meat-packing operation; some of these Colorado scenes, watchful filmgoers will note, were filmed in greater Colorado Springs. It's through this plant that much of the story is driven.

Here, Don Anderson (Greg Kinnear), a marketing executive for the fictional Mickey's fast food chain, looks into the potentially damaging reports of high E. coli counts in his restaurant's burgers. Anderson is ushered along a special tour of the factory, but he doesn't learn about illegal immigrant workers like married couple Raul (Wilmer Valderrama) and Sylvia (Catalina Sandino Moreno) who risk their lives for low pay.

Nor does he understand the life of a student like Amber (Ashley Johnson), whose minimum-wage job at a Mickey's restaurant collides with the social consciousness promoted by her bohemian uncle (Linklater stalwart Ethan Hawke).

It's frustrating to watch Fast Food Nation search for powerful stories amongst these characters, when there are so many more potentially compelling ones related to this issue. Why not the story of a mother and father watching their child suffer the effects of E. coli poisoning? Why not more on the tragic tale of Kris Kristofferson's nigh-obsolete family rancher? Or the disgruntled Mickey's employee (Paul Dano) following through on his threat to hold up his own restaurant, as so many actual fast-food workers have? With this much raw material, it's an odd choice to turn it into something that's as abstract as Linklater has.

The potent final scenes of Fast Food Nation beware, they're pretty graphic are bound to leave some viewers with the impression they've experienced something as visceral as the stuff that flows down the meat-packing conveyor belts. Yet they've only seen one of the few occasions where Schlosser's almost tactile journalism leapfrogs Linklater's casual fictions. What a strange decision it was to make a Fast Food Nation movie in which the stuff that comes out of people's mouths gets so much more attention than the stuff that goes in.

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