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With: Greg Kinnear, Patricia Arquette, Bobby Cannavale, Paul Dano, Luis Guzman, Ethan Hawke, Kris Kristofferson, Avril Lavigne, Esai Morales, Catalina Sandino Moreno, Ana Claudia Talancon, Wilmer Valderrama, Bruce Willis
Written by: Richard Linklater, Eric Schlosser, based on a book by Schlosser
Directed by: Richard Linklater
MPAA Rating: R for disturbing images, strong sexuality, language and drug content
Running Time: 116
Date: 05/19/2006

Fast Food Nation (2006)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Burger Shysters

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 "racism is bad" and "terrorism is bad." Even the convoluted Syriana manages to make loud and clear its assertion that "oil companies are 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 their hamburger meat contains traces of feces he journeys to Cody, Colorado, 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 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 non-white 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.

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 non-fiction 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.

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