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'Fast Food Nation' not very filling

Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation

KAI RYSSDAL: James Bond's gonna have some stiff competition this weekend at the multiplex. Also opening is "Fast Food Nation." It's based on the 2001 muckraking and best-selling book about the fast-food business. Director Richard Linklater did the film adaptation. We sent John Brady to find out if the movie version has any sizzle.


JOHN BRADY: Behold the burger, the tasty bedrock of American popular cuisine! We Americans spend $134 billion a year on fast food. That's 13 billion burgers, not to mention other greasy goodies. So is the grilled meat patty worthy of the Hollywood treatment? After seeing "Fast Food Nation," I'd have to say . . . Almost.

Linklater has dramatized Eric Schlosser's original reporting. He spins out a series of stories about people linked to the fictional, but still familiar-sounding fast food chain Micky's. As the film opens, Micky's executives have discovered a nasty surprise about their beef.
MOVIE CLIP: . . . And the fecal-coliform counts were just off the charts. I'm concerned that this could be a problem for us.

To fix the problem, they send out a junior executive, played by Greg Kinnear, to investigate. He alternates between gee whiz earnestness and cynical self-preservation which is no surprise considering his co-workers. Take Bruce Willis, Micky's cagey meat buyer. When confronted with the problem of the bad beef, he merely growls, "Just cook the meat and you'll be fine."

The film has a loose structure. This allows Linklater to present a panorama of American burger culture. It's filled with exploited migrant workers, flinty ranchers, corrupt slaughterhouse managers and less-than-motivated teenage employees.

Yet too often, these characters are ciphers who mouth talking points for or against fast food. They sound more artificial than the preservatives in most burgers.

The movie wants to be true to Schlosser's book. But it also wants to entertain. These two impulses compete, and it results in a sometimes uneven film.

But "Fast Food Nation" also contains some of the most arresting footage you're likely to see in a long, long while. In a linchpin sequence, Linklater takes the film to the slaughterhouse floor. A new worker is guided to her place on the production line and Linklater documents the slaughtering process. The images are shocking, but the camera won't let you look away.

"Fast Food Nation" falters in places. But ultimately it is a fitting film for a meat-mad country such as ours. And believe me, those veggie burgers will start to look much tastier from now on.

RYSSDAL: John Brady writes about popular culture in Los Angeles.

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