When Eric Schlosser's nonfiction book Fast Food Nation was released, Schlosser's journalistic skills and passionate-yet-well-structured arguments made it a best-seller; perhaps it stung a bit when Morgan Spurlock's Super Size Me made it to theaters hot on the heels of Fast Food Nation -- stealing a certain amount of Schlosser's thunder and owing a very strong debt to Schlosser's work. Fast-forward a few years and Fast Food Nation gets to come to the big screen -- not as a documentary, but instead as fiction. Directed by Richard Linklater and co-written by Linklater and Schlosser, Fast Food Nation follows a group of characters -- workers, suppliers, executives, patrons -- through the fast-food economy. The stories and characters occasionally intersect and often diverge; as some at Cannes said at Fast Food Nation's debut, think of it as Traffic with meat. The comparison is glib, but it's also apt. Linklater's film begins with an marketing executive (Greg Kinnear) from the burger chain Mickey's dispatched to Colorado to find out why, exactly, the company's burgers have a "high coliform fecal bacterial count" -- or, in other words, why "there's shit in our burgers." We also meet a group of illegal immigrants (including Catalina Sandino Moreno) whose cross-border journey ends in Colorado, where many of them get messy, grueling jobs at the meatpacking plant that provides all of Mickey's patties. There's also a plucky, bright-eyed register worker (Ashley Johnson) from one of the local Mickey's in the mix, as well as a host of other characters.
Linklater has proven his aptitude at skipping between disparate groups of characters before, in Slacker and Dazed and Confused; what he lacks even in those films but particularly in Fast Food Nation, is a firmer sense of structure. Linklater can show us the motions of every gear in his story; regrettably, what's missing is the sense of wholeness and interconnectedness you get in a film like Traffic and Syriana, where the actions and choices of each individual affect every character, even if those characters never meet.
At the same time, Linklater's given us a truly honest chronicle of modern American capitalism: Employers race to pay employees the lowest wages possible so they can increase profits; low-wage workers bargain-hunt for the cheap buys they can afford ... which are so cheap because they're made by underpaid workers. Explaining the business practices of the meatpacking plant to Kinnear, Kris Krisofferson's grizzled ex-rancher lays it out in black-and-white: "They'll slit your throat for an extra nickel. Nothing personal; they just want the extra nickel."
The director also does a good job of shifting between the intimate and the epic; a brief conversation between characters or a wordless piece of physical acting cuts to an epic shot like a flyover of a conventional cattle lot, animals and muck as far as the eye can see. Fast Food Nation is a quite good film; the problem is, it's just good enough to make you acutely aware of how it could have great.