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Movie review: 'Fast Food Nation'

Steven Rea
The Philadelphia Inquirer

If Morgan Spurlock's "Super Size Me" prompted a few folks to turn away from the Golden Arches and consider healthier dietary options, "Fast Food Nation" -- Richard Linklater's adaptation of Eric Schlosser's 2001 nonfiction best-seller -- should send meat-eaters to the veggie aisles in droves.

A rambling but potent ensemble piece, "Fast Food Nation" takes the central theme of Schlosser's book (fast food = bad for your health, bad for society) and lays it down in a multi-story fictional format. Set mostly in a western Anytown that Linklater calls Cody, Colo., the film deals not only with the seemingly regulation-free meatpacking trade, but also with issues of illegal immigration, and the exploitation of undocumented workers, the young and the economically oppressed by food industry giants.

Greg Kinnear, bringing the same earnest, white-collar persona to the table that he showed in the oddball buddy pic "The Matador," plays Don Henderson, a marketing exec for the big burger chain Mickeys (any similarity to Mickey D's is purely, um, coincidental). Dispatched to Cody to investigate reports that cow manure has turned up in the company's beef patties, Henderson takes a tour of the giant slaughterhouse that supplies the chain.

But Don's shown only the well-scrubbed side of this operation -- not the fetid yards where livestock is pumped with chemicals, not the assembly-line butchering where sinew, bone and organs are ground together, not the packing rooms where female workers sneaked in from Mexico must endure sexual harassment, or lose their jobs.

Bobby Cannavale is the predatory plant manager, who picks the prettiest of the workers for his cocaine-fueled liaisons. For a time, he favors the newly hired Coco (Ana Claudia Talancon), whom Linklater has already followed -- along with her sister Sylvia (Catalina Sandino Moreno, of "Maria Full of Grace"), Sylvia's boyfriend, and a huddled group of Mexicans. Their midnight border crossing and stealth trip (via truck, via minivan) to Cody ends in a crowded motel room, where they sprawl on the bed and floor awaiting jobs -- and their chance to pursue the American Dream.

Kris Kristofferson and Bruce Willis deliver engaging cameos: the former as an old-school cattle rancher whose livelihood is threatened by the meatpacking conglomerate down the road; the latter as a cynical Mickeys middleman, who tells Kinnear's Don that a little fecal matter in the meat is just par for the course. Why worry?

Linklater, who has made movies both intensely intimate ("Before Sunrise," "Before Sunset") and enjoyably commercial ("School of Rock" and the remake of "Bad News Bears"), also tracks a band of amusingly inept college radicals (including singer Avril Lavigne) as they plot to free the cows. And Ashley Johnson is wonderfully effective as a high school senior and Mickeys part-timer drawn into the college conspiracy -- and who gets a few words of antiestablishmentarian advice from her cool uncle (Ethan Hawke).

"Fast Food Nation" picks up, and drops off, various members of its cast, sometimes without a satisfying resolution. But its final scenes, inside a real working meatpacking plant, on the killing floor, are brutally to the point.

Linklater to the audience: Eat this, if you dare.

FAST FOOD NATION

3 stars

Produced by Jeremy Thomas and Malcolm McLaren, directed by Richard Linklater, written by Eric Schlosser and Linklater, based on the book by Schlosser, photography by Lee Daniel, music by Friends of Dean Martinez, distributed by Fox Searchlight.

Running time: 1 hour, 54 mins.

Don Henderson/Greg Kinnear

Harry/Bruce Willis

Amber/Ashley Johnson

Sylvia/Catalina Sandino Moreno

Mike/Bobby Cannavale

Parent's guide: R (graphic slaughterhouse scenes, sex, drugs, profanity, adult themes)

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