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November 15-21, 2006

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'Fast Food Nation'

Photograph by Matt Lankes
Nighthawk: Greg Kinnear stops for some empty calories in 'Fast Food Nation.'

Food for Thought

Richard Linklater's fictionalized 'Fast Food Nation' is chewier than the burgers he skewers

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

IF THEY like them at all, Americans prefer their political films simple. None of this poking around in gray areas; let's have a movie that explains its view in no uncertain terms. No one could watch Crash or United 93 and fail to come away with the messages "racism is bad" and "terrorism is bad." But while director Richard Linklater convincingly shapes his new movie, Fast Food Nation, and all its multiple threads and characters (not unlike his classic Dazed and Confused), he also allows for a complex discourse on the dubious quality of fast food in America, as well as the horrifying status and treatment of immigrants in the industry. When Don Anderson (Greg Kinnear), a representative of fictitious fast-food chain Mickeys, learns that the company's hamburger meat contains traces of feces, he journeys to Cody, Colo., the home of the meat-packing plant that provides Mickeys' beef. He gets a satisfactory tour of the plant but learns from an old cattleman (Kris Kristofferson) that things are far more gruesome than anyone lets on. In the movie's best and smartest scene, another cattle supplier, Harry (Bruce Willis), tries to get Don to lighten up, claiming that eating a little shit now and then doesn't hurt anyone. Willis is truly remarkable, magnetic and energetic, and good enough to actually sell the opposing viewpoint, all the while scarfing down a giant cheeseburger with a beer.

Meanwhile, desert rat Benny (Luis Guzman) drives illegal immigrants over the border, bound for gory, gut-churning jobs at the plant. His latest passengers are Sylvia (Catalina Sandino Moreno), her boyfriend, Raul (Wilmer Valderrama), and her sister, Coco (Ana Claudia Talancon). Coco hooks up with the violent, unpleasant plant supervisor Mike (Bobby Cannavale) and becomes a volatile, drug-addled bundle of nerves. But in one touchingly awkward scene, Sylvia and Raul try to go on a proper date in a restaurant and discover that they don't know enough English to place their order; it's a very clever moment, showing the upside and downside of this situation all at once.

Linklater makes a more earnest attempt to represent the Mexican characters than Crash did with its nonwhite characters, but he still falls victim to either/or stereotypes: either they're good people who try to make American life work, or they're all too ready to self-destruct. But even this treatment does not easily solve the controversial issue of whether or not they should be allowed to cross the border and work here; Linklater demonstrates both sides of the dispute. Still the mere fact that Linklater mutes his politics within his storytelling is something of a small accomplishment in itself. Any other filmmaker would have turned in a dutiful documentary adaptation of Eric Schlosser's nonfiction book. Instead, Fast Food Nation flows with Linklater's vintage veracity; the camera lingers over moments, recording conversations rather than dialogue, behavior rather than acting. Rather than looking down on viewers as dumb, blank slates to be taught and converted, he simply invites us to participate in the conversation.

Movie Times Fast Food Nation (R; 106 min.), directed by Richard Linklater, written by Linklater and Eric Schlosser, based on the book by Schlosser, photographed by Lee Daniel and starring Greg Kinnear, Luis Guzman and Bruce Willis, opens Nov. 17.

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