Back in 1992, when Richard Linklater was preparing his summer-of-’76 high school memento Dazed and Confused, he wanted a scene where a group of the movie’s teen troublemakers steal a Ronald McDonald statue and escort it, made up like a member of KISS, to their beer bust. Nix, said the copyright controllers: Ronald McDonald was not for playing with the bad boys. “You try to be realistic, but they won’t let you,” Linklater noted in his DVD commentary for the film. “You can’t touch corporate America.”

Fourteen years later, you could say Linklater has pulled his revenge out of the deep freeze: His fictionalized distillation of Eric Schlosser’s muckraking best-seller Fast Food Nation depicts a burger chain called Mickey’s whose McWhopping cash cow “the Big One” turns out to be riddled with shit. But Mickey’s is less a ringer for McDonald’s than a synecdoche for the fast-food-franchise herd entire, and Fast Food Nation the movie sets its sights not on individual corporate malfeasance so much as a pervasively poisonous socioeconomic order. If a Mickey’s Big One, for all its shiny happy advertising, leaves a trail of exploited workers, abused animals and despoiled land — not to mention unhealthy consumers — there’s an industrial-grade logic behind it. At the heart of the movie is the image of the meat-packing plant’s disassembly line, a conveyor belt whose speed directly correlates with the plant’s profit. Faster means higher margins, more workplace injuries and more irremediable mistakes at the gut table. Like Spinal Tap guitarist Nigel Tufnel, meat-packing companies like to crank the speed up to 11. (This is the phenomenon the economists call “the race to the bottom.”)

Linklater credits Schlosser with the idea of adapting Fast Food Nation as fiction. “I loved the book, but I’m not a documentarian, and I’m sure that, like most people, I originally saw it being filmed as a documentary,” he says, speaking by phone from London. “When Eric requested a meeting, I didn’t even know what we were going to talk about.”

The co-writers approach their subject through three storylines that intersect in Cody, Colorado, a fictional meat-packing anytown. Don (Greg Kinnear) is a Mickey’s company man, sent to investigate the source of a “fecal coliform” infection; Sylvia (Catalina Sandino Moreno) is an illegal Mexican immigrant trying to resist the vice of drugs, harassment and injury that constitutes work at the Uniglobe Meat Packing Plant; Amber (Ashley Johnson) is a teenage Mickey’s waitress, experiencing the first stirrings of political consciousness.

Unlike most contemporary collage films (from Silver City and Syriana to Crash and Babel), Fast Food Nation’s multiple strands don’t converge to a single point: The characters pass and continue on their way, wiser, sadder and humbler. Notwithstanding some typically garrulous moments with Ethan Hawke as Amber’s nonconformist uncle, there’s little trace of the socialist sermonizing with which Upton Sinclair concluded The Jungle, his seminal exposé of conditions in the Chicago stockyards a century ago.

“Ah, Sinclair’s one mistake!” Linklater laughs ruefully. “But it was an honest mistake. People often try to tie everything together at the end and draw conclusions.” That said, he admits that Sinclair’s tome loomed large over this whole project. “Most of the gains made in labor conditions after the book was published have been lost again now: The situation was more advanced in 1950 than it is today. Meat-packing’s always been a shitty job, but it used to be a shitty job with decent wages, health care and pension rights. As those things have been whittled away, Americans have started dropping out of it, so that now those jobs are done by the most vulnerable immigrants.”

Linklater bemoans the lack of empathy among people (“It used to be 60 people a year died crossing the desert into America; now it’s 500, and people just shrug and say, ‘Ach . . . ’?”) and between people and their environment that he feels is reinforced by the rule of the free market. Fast Food Nation, he suggests, is really about class. And, like Schlosser, he sees more hope in consumer power and the demand for better-produced food than in political action, even if too many organic and fair-trade initiatives are pitched upmarket. “Do you know it’s illegal to use your food stamps to buy organic food?” he asks. “That really gets me. The poor are taught they can only afford bad food.”

It’s those human divisions and disconnections that Linklater’s film tries to bridge. Fast Food Nation agitates against class bounds even in its casting, a melting pot of more and less famous faces, from Kris Kristofferson and Bruce Willis to Avril Lavigne and That ’70s Show’s Wilmer Valderrama. “You know, I was lucky that I didn’t have to cast anyone to get this movie made — the money was already in place,” he says. (The film was produced by maverick producer Jeremy Thomas, with former Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren.) “So I could just call up these people whom I thought would fit the roles.”

Still, it’s a good bet that Linklater’s conception of “fitting a role” takes in the full persona of a given actor: Kristofferson, for instance, plays a last-of-breed independent rancher, while corn-fed Willis — the ex-face of Planet Hollywood as well as an underrated character actor — provides the voice of meat-industry pragmatism, decrying how America has become full of “great big fraidy cats” who’ve gotta grow up: “Just cook the meat and you’ll be fine.”

A similar approach seemed to be at work in the casting of A Scanner Darkly, Linklater’s recent animated adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s drug-freak elegy, with Keanu Reeves losing his grip on reality as Woody Harrelson and Robert Downey Jr. popped pills beside him. That film now forms an interesting companion piece to Fast Food Nation, describing the Southern California roots of the fake plastic culture — from burgers to bodies, tract homes to Mickey Mouse — that has swept across America and the world.

“Southern California’s always been a petri dish for lots of modern developments,” Linklater concurs. “The book [of Fast Food Nation] makes clear how the growth of the highway system and the death of mass transit worked in tandem with the development of fast-food culture. And stoner culture certainly grew out of there, not to mention all these weird political propositions that then roll out across the nation.”

Fast Food Nation opens Friday, November 17, in Los Angeles theaters.

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