One thought prevailed in my brain as I watched Fast Food Nation: Richard Linklater has turned into John Sayles. That’s not a good thing, by the way, though I’m sure it’s only temporary. The multifariously talented filmmaker who made The School of Rock and Before Sunrise and A Scanner Darkly will come back to us. Still, this sprawling, well-intentioned bore of a movie will have you wondering where he went.

The movie’s based on Eric Schlosser’s eye-opening 2001 book investigating the industrial practices of McDonald’s and the other major fast-food chains. The book had no narrative and no characters, so the film invents them to illustrate the various evils that these businesses do. Don Anderson (Greg Kinnear), an executive at a fictional chain called Mickey’s, receives a report about fecal coliform counts in his company’s hamburger patties. His boss bluntly tells him, “There’s shit in the meat,” so Don visits their meatpacking plant in Colorado to investigate. Raúl (Wilmer Valderrama) is an illegal Mexican immigrant who works at the plant and sees all the bad stuff that Don is kept away from. Amber (Ashley Johnson) is a disenchanted Mickey’s employee who joins an environmental activist group that tries to change the company’s way of doing business.

It’s hard to tell which is more surprising: how uninteresting these people are, or how clumsily put together this story is. Linklater has told this sort of multi-level story to great effect in Slacker and Dazed and Confused, but here he directs like a hack, even resorting to that old trick of shifting between storylines by having characters pass each other on the street. Everybody is decent and more or less ineffectual in the face of cardboard villains like the plant supervisor who sexually exploits his female workers (Bobby Cannavale) or the owner who advances every argument for the status quo (Bruce Willis).


As far as consciousness-raising about the fast food industry goes, there’s not much in this movie that’ll surprise anyone who’s seen Super Size Me or even Clerks II. The only memorable note in this film comes at the very end, when Raúl’s girlfriend Sylvia (Catalina Sandino Moreno) is forced to take a job at the plant after he’s been hurt in an accident. She’s immediately thrown onto the kill floor, and through her we see the stomach-turning reality of how cows are turned into hamburgers. Seriously, the sight of those huge, yellow, gooey masses of internal organs flying by on conveyor belts was enough to make me swear off beef for a good 3.5 seconds. (What can I say? I like my steak.) As powerful as this scene is, the movie needed four or five more like it. Fast Food Nation aims to be a damning indictment of our nation’s food industrial complex, but it can’t do that when it feels as dry and thin as a fast-food burger.

 Fast Food Nation
Starring Greg Kinnear, Wilmer Valderrama, and Ashley Johnson. Directed by Richard Linklater. Written by Richard Linklater and Eric Schlosser, based on Schlosser’s book. Rated R.