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Richard Linklater is channeling Robert Altman — or at least it seems he’s trying to channel Altman — with his meandering, intertwined plot lines about the horrors of the fast food industry in “Fast Food Nation.”
Characters come and go, there’s no great, driving momentum. It’s as if the director is returning to his intentionally plotless, indie “Slacker” roots, not adapting a best-selling novel with some real teeth to it.
Linklater has teamed up with “Fast Food Nation” writer Eric Schlosser to fictionalize Schlosser’s 2001 nonfiction book. Stories involve a restaurant chain executive (Greg Kinnear) investigating high fecal levels in the burgers; a high school student (Ashley Johnson) who wants out of her minimum-wage cashier job; and a group of illegal immigrants (including Wilmer Valderrama and Catalina Sandino Moreno, with Luis Guzman as their mule) who come from Mexico to work at a dangerous meatpacking plant.
It has its moments. Kris Kristofferson stands out in one scene as a longtime rancher who’s seen too much and is sick of it, as does Bruce Willis as a cynical meat supplier who’s seen too much and just doesn’t care. It only makes you want to see more of them.
And the thread about the perils the Mexicans face, both on the processing line and outside the workplace where drugs are rampant to dull the pain of the daily grind, could have stood as a film of its own. Of all the stories told in “Fast Food Nation,” it’s the most compelling, and it offers the strongest performances.
(It also provides a unique perspective to see actors of Hispanic descent who normally perform in English — “That ’70s Show” co-star Valderrama, Guzman and Bobby Cannavale — speak Spanish for a change.)
As Schlosser himself says in the press notes, “The film isn’t a documentary. It isn’t a comedy or a satire.” It didn’t necessarily have to be, though that approach worked for “Thank You For Smoking,” which brilliantly skewered the tobacco industry. But it would have been more engaging if Linklater had provided a bit more tension, a bit more suspense.
Kinnear’s Don Anderson seems to be on to something when he travels from the Anaheim, Calif., headquarters of the Mickey’s fast food chain, famous for “The Big One” burger, to fictional Cody, Colo., to look into reports of contamination in the frozen patties being pumped out of the processing plant. (Officials there give him a tour that only reveals the most sparklingly clean parts of the operation.)
While in this cultural wasteland of strip malls and drive-thrus, he visits the local Mickey’s restaurant, where Amber (Johnson) toils away behind the counter. Whipping up the burgers, and occasionally dropping them on the floor and spitting in them, is the subversive Brian (Paul Dano, who was so great opposite Kinnear in “Little Miss Sunshine”).
Amber’s uncle Pete (longtime Linklater pal Ethan Hawke) thinks she’s wasting her time working at Mickey’s and urges her to get out of this nowhere town as soon as she graduates from high school — which seems like a waste of time on his part, since she already studies hard and plans to attend college. She also gets some lofty ideas by hanging out with students from the local university (including Avril Lavigne in her first film role) who organize completely disorganized protests.
On the other end of the spectrum are the illegal workers slaving away amid the blood, guts and slabs of meat. Valderrama’s Raul is in awe of the money he can make in just one day compared to what he earned in Mexico, but his wife, Sylvia (played by Moreno, the beautiful, Oscar-nominated star of “Maria Full of Grace”), can’t stand it there and instead takes a job as a chamber maid at the hotel where Kinnear’s character is staying.
Sylvia’s wild sister, Coco (Ana Claudia Talancon), meanwhile, gets hooked on meth when she starts messing around with Mike (Cannavale), her arrogant, abusive boss at the plant.
Somewhere in the mix of all this, just as he starts asking the tough questions, Anderson disappears. Not that anything dastardly has befallen him — it’s more like Linklater and Schlosser just dropped him, forgot about him, even though he seemed like the closest thing to a protagonist in this wandering ensemble piece.
Maybe creating such a leisurely pace was intentional. Maybe Linklater wanted to lull you in to the film’s rhythms to make the brutally graphic ending seem like even more of a jolt. It is effective, though; it’ll keep you from ordering a burger for quite some time.