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Tucson's Friends of Dean Martinez can't save the dull 'Fast Food Nation'

Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation is a great book. A nonfiction work about the meatpacking industry, the people who work it and the fast-food restaurants that patronize it, it brings home the cruelty of every level of a vertical economy. Schlosser not only manages to pack in the pertinent information; he humanizes the story and gives it a narrative thrust by detailing the lives of many of those who've been affected by the way capitalism seeks to minimize costs and maximize profits.

For some reason, this led Schlosser to think that he could write a work of fiction, so he teamed up with director Richard Linklater to turn his fascinating and moving book into a dull and preachy film with a great cast and no capacity to distinguish telling a story from writing a treatise.

Characters don't so much have dialogue as monologues that would, if they were presented as factual elements of a documentary, be not only interesting, but also important. But when a fictional 20-year-old radical talks about the horrors of factory farming, you have no reason to believe him and, due to the inhuman and editorial nature of the speech, less of a reason to sympathize.

It's too bad, because Linklater was able to use his arcane powers to summon an unholy assortment of actors. The Dread Dormammu himself would be frightened by the magic needed to get Greg Kinnear, Kris Kristofferson, Esai Morales, Bruce Willis, Wilmer Valderrama, Luis Guzmán, Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke and Avril Lavigne together in one cinematic package.

Kinnear plays the usual smirking Kinnear part as a "Mickey's Burger" executive tasked with finding out why there's so much cow poop in the burger patties. He's especially concerned because the company's phallically named Big One is selling so well that even "tweens, heavy users, minivan-dads" are dumping McDonald's for the potent power of the tumescent burger, and a news story about how it's made of excrement could hurt not only sales, but feelings.

He heads to Colorado to check out the meatpacking plant where cows are water-boarded, forced to confabulate tales about making bombs out of shampoo, and then gutted, hoofed, skinned and turned into highly nutritious frozen-food-delivery systems.

Meanwhile, a group of undocumented sub-Texan Americans is being led across the border by an enterprising businessman whose job is to provide high-grade human materials for the burgeoning labor market. This hard-working entrepreneur delivers Raul, Sylvia and Coco to the waiting hands of the caring cow-conversion industry, where they live the American dream of working all day for less than a lawyer makes during 20 minutes of advising a senator to destroy his old e-mails.

While their supervisor at the Uni Globe Meatpacking Plant convinces them to work harder and have sexual relations with him in exchange for the drugs they need to get through the day, a group of pale white teens serves the burgers to a public eager to live the good life of obesity-related illness and ketchup breath.

All of this sounds like a good plot for either a comedy or a drama or a Western or maybe a diet book, but somehow, none of that develops. Instead, at some point, everyone in the film stops talking and starts expostulating on the history, practices and dangers of meatpacking. It's as though, in the middle of filming, the script was commandeered by a group of terrorist left-wing bloggers.

The worst bits involve segments where some college kids form a political action group. Lavigne, whose eye makeup would indicate that she's playing a raccoon posing as a freshman drama major, adds some poorly cast star power to the group of future middle-managers who decide to set the cows free, man, because that would, like, show the establishment that cows are, like, umm, free.

While Schlosser and Linklater get the naiveté of the group, they don't get that kids are also people, and instead produce a group of dolts who speak like entries from a Noam Chomsky Internet discussion group who don't know that cattle are even less intelligent than George Allen.

It's all a shame, because Linklater normally has a deft sense of character and story. He clearly made a mistake in letting Schlosser write the script. Schlosser's an excellent writer in his genre, but he's entirely out of his element here.

I wish they had simply made the book into a documentary. Some of the shots of cows being slaughtered are clearly real; they're horrifying and show what could have been done in a nonfiction version of this film. It cost them the "no animals were harmed in the making of" disclaimer, but gave the film one of its few bits of emotional punch.

The music, by the way, is by Tucson's own Friends of Dean Martinez, and it's the kind of smooth movie music they've always made and should be more famous for. If you just put on one of their records while reading Schlosser's book, you'll get a much better experience than you would by sitting through this thesis paper posing as a movie.

Fast Food Nation
Rated NR

More by James DiGiovanna

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