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How a Cow Becomes a Patty

"Fast Food Nation" explains the small-mindedness of Big Macs.

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During a recent screening of "Fast Food Nation" what was being sold at the theater? In a phrase, fast food. It's not the movie's fault, but it must be hard to make something truly subversive when your medium is so nastily entangled with the enterprises you're trying to subvert. Director Richard Linklater tries hard anyway in "Fast Food Nation," based on the best-seller by Eric Schlosser, who co-wrote the script with him. The story is a modern-day version of Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle," the 1906 novel that exposed labor conditions in the U.S. meatpacking industry and inspired the passage of public health reforms. Sinclair apparently thought the public missed his point; he wasn't as interested in the unsanitary conditions as he was in the poor laborers. Maybe in an attempt not to fall into the same trap, "Fast Food Nation" concentrates on the people involved in the production of the meat. Instead of the Lithuanians transplanted to Chicago in Sinclair's book, here we have Mexicans who have crossed the border to work in the dangerous and unclean innards of an enormous meatpacking plant in Texas.

Fast food is one of those enterprises a lot of us would like to see flame-broiled. Not only does it make it for many of our fellow Americans increasingly difficult to squeeze through a doorway, but it wreaks havoc on the environment where it's produced, litters the earth wherever it is consumed, and stains town after town with those unsightly neon hamburger outlets of unlimited variety, which sit gathering ugliness as the decades go by. In fact, one of the few bad things about the fast food industry left out of Linklater's diatribe of a film is how those pre-chain hamburger stands now litter the landscape like empty tombstones warning what our towns will look like when the cow money dries up.

The movie does a good job of showing how those cows become money, starting with their rude transmutation from cud-chewing bovines into bright-red frozen hockey pucks. (Actually, the film leaves the very beginning of that process until the end, lest we exit too soon because of nausea.) Along the way we learn how the fast food companies register their customers' profiles unknown to them, and how they use that information along with other tools to market and control the way we eat their product.

As our tour guide, Greg Kinnear plays a vice president of marketing for one of the leading chains, a fictional Wendy's-esque company whose latest creation, The Big One, is riding a wave of record-breaking sales. The only problem is that independent student researchers have found cow feces in the meat. Kinnear is sent to find out why it's there.

This is all fascinating information, especially if you previously thought the most insidious thing about McDonald's was the Hamburglar. But unfortunately for the movie, it sees fit to stop in the middle of its reporting to deliver many lengthy monologues. Linklater first broke on the scene in a haze of pot smoke with the '70s ode "Dazed and Confused." To this day, the film is taken to be a parody, but his following films — from "Before Sunrise" to "Waking Life" — belie the laughs. The far-out hippie speak, it would seem, is supposed to be taken seriously. "Fast Food Nation" contains the same kind of pseudo-intellectualism, often from the same actors who have appeared in Linklater's previous films.

And so we have Ethan Hawke as an uncle of one of the main characters, who shows up for no reason other than to talk about escaping small-town life. When the topic of ranchland comes up, Linklater simply inserts Kris Kristofferson, who drives across a portion while delivering his monologue. There had to be a better way to talk about the disappearance of ranchland in America than to actually talk about it. Where the imagery of the meat plant is riveting, these scenes are examples of storytelling at its worst, and they play like public-school filmstrips.

The examples are legion, and some even involve Avril Lavigne. I found myself extremely disappointed, wondering if Linklater would again be lauded for his filmmaking skills while turning in half-cooked material. "Fast Food Nation" has some of the problems you might expect of a sprawling protest work: It's at times unfocused and spread too thin over a wide-ranging topic. But it also suffers on an artistic level from a lot of shortcomings common to Linklater's work, the most significant here being wordiness. If people stop eating beef because of this film, it might be because they associate it with boredom. (R) 116 min. ** S

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