November 30, 2006

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Fast Food Nation (R)
Greg Kinnear tries to figure out why there's so much poop in the burgers in Fast Food Nation, a fictionalized version of the Eric Schlosser non-fiction book about the rise and effect of so much speedy, junky food.

There is poop in the burgers, more or less, because we don't want to pay all that much for them, the movie says. If we want our burgers to stay at value meal prices, it means speedier out-put of more beef, less time with the butchering (when, for example, you would make sure not to puncture the organs that are full of cow doody) and untrained, low-paid workers. Require training and a slower production line and workers would be able to keep contamination under better control; at least, this seems to be the movie's position.

Don (Kinnear) is your average marketing executive, with a pretty if fast-food-ish housing-development home in southern California. He genuinely likes working for Mickey's, a burger chain resembling (I'm sure) no real-life corporation, and he's proud of helping to come up with The Big One, the chain's headlining burger.

He's new enough at this job not to immediately know what terms like "fecal count" mean and, when an executive tells him that the burgers are full of cow crap, Don wants to know how they got that way so he journeys to the Colorado plant that processes the meat.

Though we lose Don along the way, our tour of the Mickey's food chain shows us the floor of the meat packing plant where newly arrived illegal immigrants fill most of the dangerous, dirty jobs — that is after they risk their money and their lives crossing over. Raul (Wilmer Valderrama), his wife Sylvia (Catalina Sandino Moreno) and her sister Coco (Ana Claudia Talancon) begin work at the plant mere hours after arriving in the U.S. and soon find themselves at the mercy of unscrupulous bosses and unprotected from injury. (The movie, by the way, does not suggest that a big fence solves this problem nor does it suggest that these, literally, crappy jobs are being wrested from the hands of Americans. We want cheap food, illegal workers offer cheap labor. If anything, the movie suggests we don't need border guards so much as we need culinary standards.)

We also meet high school student Amber (Ashley Johnson) and her mom Cindy (Patricia Arquette), whose combined incomes keep up their working-class existence. Both of them work for chains — Cindy for a big-box pet store and Amber for Mickey's, where she is often the most responsible of a staff of teen workers who don't have a problem with picking up a dropped patty off the floor and flapping it back onto the grill. Amber eventually becomes disenchanted with her employer, in part because of the fight-the-Man ramblings of her uncle (Ethan Hawke) and in part because of a college environmental group (led in part by Avirl Lavigne).

Those last two names point to what is wrong with this movie. Fast Food Nation the book is an interesting study of our recent history and has a lot to say about the economic, health and social status of our country. Fast Food Nation the movie wants to say these things too, but to do so must put them in the mouths of witless characters played by the likes of Hawke and Lavigne. Sure, the movie has no problem mocking the youthful goofiness of the college environmentalists, just as it mocks corporate and chain culture, but there is still a blunted quality to its message. Combine that with the fragmentary nature of its plots (Sylvia's story is the strongest but other characters simply seem to evaporate) and the movie just doesn't have the vividness or sharpness you'd expect this kind of political drama to offer.

Fast Food Nation would have better served its source material as a documentary — especially in this age of An Inconvenient Truth and Who Killed the Electric Car? when documentaries have every bit the drama and the punch of fiction features. As it stands, Fast Food Nation offers up some smart and slyly funny moments but overall feels like kiddie burger in a quarter-pounder bun. C+

Rated R for disturbing images (you will not want to go out for burger later), strong sexuality, language and drug content. Directed by Richard Linklater and written by Linklater and Eric Schlosser, Fast Food Nation is an hour and 46 minutes long and is distributed by Fox Searchlight Pictures in limited release, locally in Boston

— Amy Diaz