"Fast Food Nation" is "Syriana" on a sesame seed bun, "Traffic" with a side of fries, a dense unhappy meal that takes a bit of chewing to digest, but leaves you feeling smarter for experiencing it. Effectively balanced between the nonfiction muckraking of Eric Schlosser's bestselling expose and the loosely structured character drama of Richard Linklater's adaptation, the film is fascinating food for thought.
Linklater, a master of sprawling narratives ("Slacker," "A Scanner Darkly," "Dazed and Confused"), employs multiple storylines to explore the ways the fast food industry has insinuated itself into our economic and cultural landscape. The film's subject and setting are rarely used for anything except comedy in most features; this one turns the routine experience of buying a mass-produced meal into a troubling metaphor for 21st-century American life.
The focus of the story is a chain whose jumbo "Big One" burgers are registering worrisome levels of E. coli. Initially, it focuses on the marketing executive (Greg Kinnear) assigned to deal with the problem, which is treated as a potentially embarrassing image issue as much as a risk of dangerous contamination.
The perspective soon widens. The strong ensemble cast — including Bruce Willis, Ethan Hawke, Catalina Sandino Moreno, Wilmer Valderrama, Kris Kristofferson and Avril Lavigne — moves through loosely linked subplots.
Though there is plenty of fuel for outrage, the tale never becomes a diatribe. The film doesn't deal in heroes and villains, but with normal people trapped in a food chain that's out of whack. A clique of anticorporate student activists, who would be idealized freedom fighters in a simpler film, mostly come off as self-indulgent posers.
When the film's story is told, you feel a pang of sympathy for the ranchers, butchers, cashiers, corporate middlemen and, not least, the consumers, all trapped in a tainted system they've mutually created. It's tough to swallow, but we are what we eat.