Fast Food Nation

So Richard Linklater read “Fast Food Nation,” Eric Schlosser’s bestselling exposé on the junk food industry, and decided the way to turn it into a movie was to fictionalize it. Rather than shining the spotlight on McDonald’s and Burger King, he’d go behind the scenes at a fictional chain, trusting the audience to understand that while the names have been changed, the basic details are true.

The result doesn’t work, but I can see why Linklater tried it. A director who has generally stayed outside the mainstream (“Dazed and Confused,” “Waking Life,” “A Scanner Darkly”), Linklater is given to experimentation anyway. If we had to guess which filmmakers were likely to do something as unusual as making a fictional movie out of a nonfiction book, Linklater’s name would certainly be on the short list.

What’s more, people don’t generally go to documentaries in great numbers. By making a “regular” movie instead of a doc, Linklater (who co-scripted with Schlosser) guarantees a wider audience and thus a greater potential for spreading the word about the evils of the fast-food industry. It’s the rare time in his career that Linklater WANTS mass exposure for his film.

Unfortunately, “Fast Food Nation” the movie is as weak and bland as a McDonald’s hamburger patty. It’s overloaded with characters, has too many subplots, and lacks enough smoking-gun revelations to justify itself. Its main points are that fast-food chains use heavily processed meat (which requires the slaughtering of cows), and that they take advantage of their employees. Well, duh. We needed a movie to tell us this?

There are too many characters with equal screen time and comparable importance to single one out as a “protagonist,” but the closest thing to it is Don Henderson (Greg Kinnear), a marketing vice-president for Mickey’s, the fictional burger chain that stands in for the real ones described in the book. Someone has discovered traces of cow manure in Mickey’s hamburger patties, and while the information isn’t public because no one has gotten sick yet, the bigwigs want to solve the problem before a profit-crippling scandal emerges.

Don is dispatched to Cody, Colo., where Mickey’s cows live, die, and are processed at a giant meat-packing plant. A tour of the plant shows sterile conditions and a thoroughly professional workplace. So how is cow poop getting into the hamburgers? Could it be that the plant managers are hiding things from him?

Meanwhile, we meet a band of illegal Mexican immigrants who are transported to Cody and given jobs at Mickey’s meat factory. The work is grueling, disgusting, and low-paying. In fact, it’s so bad that one worker, Sylvia (Catalina Sandino Moreno), quits and gets hired as a hotel maid instead. It seems to me that when even the illegal aliens consider your business too exploitative and degrading, maybe that’s the time to rethink your human resources policies.

Sylvia’s husband (Wilmer Valderrama) stays at the plant, as does her sister (Ana Claudia Talancón). The latter finds herself prey to Mike (Bobby Cannavale), an abusive bilingual plant manager who makes a habit of having sex with his prettier female employees.

Meanwhile, the local Mickey’s restaurant is home to the usual assortment of teenage employees, including Amber (Ashley Johnson), a smart girl with a good head on her shoulders who starts to question her relationship with Mickey’s after meeting up with a college environmentalist group.

Those three prongs — the corporate guy, the factory workers, and the local-level employees — comprise the film’s plan of action. But it’s too much. There are too many people who are introduced as a means of adding flavor to the stew but who just get in the way. There’s Ashley’s idiot co-worker (Paul Dano) and their middle-aged boss (Esai Morales), for example, and the coyote (Luis Guzmán) who helps the illegals with their border-crossings, and the Mexican who gets separated from his group in the desert and whose boot is eventually found by another group, and Ashley’s mom (Patricia Arquette), and her post-hippie, sophistry-spouting uncle (Ethan Hawke). The cast is so large that Don Henderson — the closest thing we have to a main character, remember — disappears altogether for the entire second half of the film. There’s just too much going on.

And, in a lot of ways, too little. Linklater wants us to be appalled at the warts-and-all depiction of the fast-food industry, and while it is compelling to see how meat is ACTUALLY produced (it’s not for the squeamish), it’s not particularly revelatory. Low-grade meat? Artificial flavors? Underpaid employees? Well, yeah. Is there anyone in America who thought otherwise? What’s next, an exposé about how sometimes used-car salesmen are dishonest?

Maybe Linklater knows he’s not revealing anything we weren’t already aware of and is instead trying to make us think about things we usually avoid contemplating. Morgan Spurlock’s superlative documentary “Super Size Me” did exactly that, showing how fast food can destroy your health — something we already knew, but which his shocking experimentation made us pay attention to. I don’t find “Fast Food Nation” to be in the same league. Not to go all retro on you, but where’s the beef?

C (1 hr., 54 min.; R, some very strong sexuality, a little nudity, brief graphic violence, scattered harsh profanity.)