When Richard Linklater made Slacker, it wasn’t enough for him to define a generation. (Well, part of one.) He had to bounce from character to character, format to format, so his movie would be as blob-like and shifting as a college-town community. When he wanted to convey the experience of infatuation, in Before Sunrise, he again matched form to subject matter. The film, like its fictional couple, was its own little bubble floating through space and time. In Waking Life, Linklater improbably set out to capture consciousness itself: the rippling motion of thought, as one mental image dissolves at the touch of another. His means was a made-in-the-garage rotoscope, which let him produce pictures in an indeterminate zone between live action and animation. Even when he took on a cheerfully commercial project, School of Rock, Linklater tested the material and himself. To make a movie about forming a kids’ band, he put together a kids’ band.

Now, in Fast Food Nation, Linklater has collaborated with journalist and co-writer Eric Schlosser to create a wide-ranging fictionalized exposé of the franchised burger business. It’s about “billions and billions served” as an economy, a set of social relations, a way of life. Or, if you prefer a more direct statement, it’s about eating shit, both figuratively and literally. Either way, Fast Food Nation is explicitly an activist movie, which not only encourages viewers to change their world but directs them to a website that suggests how to get started.

Being a film by Richard Linklater, Fast Food Nation also questions the nature of activist movies.

Before I get to that, though, I’d better tell you about the website. One of the companies behind Fast Food Nation is Participant Productions, an outfit established in 2004 by Jeff Skoll, the first president of eBay. Working with like-minded people who are experienced in film and television production, Skoll has been involved with more than half a dozen films about social issues, including An Inconvenient Truth; Syriana; Good Night, and Good Luck; North Country; Murderball; and Arna’s Children. Some of these are documentaries; others are fiction films based on true stories. But all are solid, responsible movies that urge audiences to learn about a problem and then do something to solve it. I suppose this makes Skoll the Stanley Kramer of the Internet tycoon era. He brings good intentions to the screen, then asks you to visit www.participate.net, where good works are only a click away.

But what actions are available? With participate.net as your portal, you can contact worthwhile organizations like Oxfam. You can add your name to a petition expressing wishful if unexceptionable sentiments. (Who knows? Maybe they’ll influence somebody with a little power.) Or you can go right back to where you started: Visit the website of the film, buy the DVD, watch the hilarious flash videos inspired by the movie you just watched! Now that your consciousness has been raised, you might also want to take advantage of the site’s blog feature, which lets you read your own opinions and agree with yourself. For all the good that Participant is doing–and I think the contribution has been substantial–the company also has reproduced the traits of self-congratulation and self-validation that weighed down Stanley Kramer’s cinema, politically and artistically. You see the problem on the website, and you see it in many of the films, which want to go crusading but never venture beyond a very homey aesthetic territory.

I can’t say that Fast Food Nation overcomes these problems, but thanks to Linklater it succeeds in confronting them.

Fast Food Nation does its work by connecting three sets of characters, each of which is summed up in a single figure. The purveyors of fast food are represented by a marketing executive with the bland, good-guy name of Don Anderson (Greg Kinnear). His fabulously successful new product for Mickey’s Burgers–a slab of ground beef slathered with the name Big One–is in danger of failing, now that some meddlesome college students have discovered that the meat contains a surprisingly high concentration of manure. So the home office sends Don to Cody, Colorado, to check on the supplier and make sure everything’s OK.

The makers of fast food are represented by a Mexican woman named Sylvia (Catalina Sandino Moreno), who crossed the border illegally with her husband, Raul (Wilmer Valderrama). While Raul willingly labors in Cody’s stinking, scary Uni-Globe Meatpacking plant (where cows are transformed into stacks of frozen pucks), Sylvia struggles for as long as she can to avoid the place and the danger she senses in it.

As for the delivery system of fast food, it’s represented by Amber (Ashley Johnson), a high school senior who works behind the counter at one of Cody’s numerous outlets of Mickey’s Burgers. Blessed with a brain, a backbone and a conscience, Amber finds her way into a circle of activists at Cody’s university, with predictably sorry consequences for her future at Mickey’s.

The problem with Fast Food Nation is that Don, Sylvia and Amber amount to little more than this expository scheme, as you’ll see readily enough if you compare Kinnear’s performance here with his work in Little Miss Sunshine. In both films, he portrays a perfectly groomed, willfully naïve middle-class man on the border of despair; but in Sunshine, he figures things out (or doesn’t) right in front of your eyes, working from all manner of needs and hopes, both immediate and remote, whereas here he’s reduced to eliciting information and then saying, with a blink, “I’m shocked.”

Or compare Sandino Moreno’s Sylvia to her character in Maria Full of Grace. Again, the roles are comparable: a determined young woman from Latin America risks her neck coming to the United States, tries to help a more reckless friend and finds herself in deep trouble. But Maria comes alive onscreen in a way that Sylvia does not, and not just because she’s so much more defiant a character. Maria resists a situation that has more than one possible outcome. Sylvia has nowhere to go, except for a place announced right at the beginning.

With Amber alone, the character has aspects that go beyond her function. Linklater and Schlosser have given her a semi-juvenile mother (Patricia Arquette) who sometimes behaves like a wayward teenager, so that Amber has to play the adult and restore order. You sense, without being told, that civil disobedience gives Amber a way to continue her responsibilities while also breaking away from them. It also lets her live out, while evading, her feelings for her very hot uncle Pete (Ethan Hawke), who comes through Cody just long enough to take her to a bar, embarrass her with sexual counseling and fill her ears with tales of his glory days, when he was busted for agitating against the university’s investments in apartheid South Africa. The world can change, he tells a very receptive Amber. But the price of change is more than talk. You actually have to do something.

Here, in the audience, we are all Amber. We can’t identify with Don, because he’s just a device for indicting the fast food industry. And we don’t want to be Sylvia, because her only job is to suffer. So we latch on to the one character with possibilities–the one to whom the film’s message is explicitly addressed. Do something, she’s told, and she does.

At which point the movie’s activism collapses.

To explain how Fast Food Nation turns on itself, I must give away this much of the plot: Amber joins her friends in sneaking onto Uni-Globe property, where they break down the fence of a cattle pen. By this nonviolent (though not exactly victimless) act, they expect to strike a blow against a terrible corporate polluter, while showing the world that cows are not meant to spend their lives in feedlots. But the cows won’t go anywhere. Provided with loads of tasty, fattening chow, and used to confinement since birth, they refuse to run free.

I suppose this means the cows are like the average McDonald’s customer. They–we–know perfectly well that burgers are produced amid cruelty, sold through corruption and consumed as filth. In fact, ever since Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle a hundred years ago, the hamburger has been turning stomachs; but we don’t walk away from it. On the contrary: The burger remains perennially popular, precisely because it is greasy, cheap and common. Hamburgers are the meal of regular guys, like Clark Gable, who pick them up by the bagful and never call them Salisbury steak. Gable understood–and so do we–that if America can lay any true claim to being a classless society, it’s because of the hamburger, especially when served by the billions and billions.

So it clogs your arteries, makes you fat, trashes the soil, poisons the water, condemns animals to a nonlife and chews up multitudes of helpless undocumented workers. People want it. This is the uncomfortable lesson built into Fast Food Nation, the lesson that runs counter to the film’s message. A cool guy like Uncle Pete can mock the conformity of fast food culture. A figure with the probity of the film’s crusty old rancher (Kris Kristofferson) can rail against “the machine that’s takin’ over this country.” But a poor immigrant like Raul will still be thrilled to eat on franchise alley; and the cattle, when shown open range, will still stay in the pen.

So should we give up and do nothing–not even make movies? God forbid. I’m grateful for every Inconvenient Truth that gets out into the world. But I’m also grateful for the sense of contradiction and complexity that Linklater brings to an otherwise hortatory project.

At the very beginning of Fast Food Nation, he puts a twist into his activism by showing you the inside of a Mickey’s franchise, where impossibly cheerful people are enjoying their primary-colored food. Everything is bright and convivial and as phony as chicken tenders. The camera, adopting a customer’s viewpoint, glides toward a table and then keeps moving forward, toward the surface of a glistening Big One, and then keeps going, into the meat, which dissolves to show another scene: a street in Mexico. Anyone who’s been to the movies will recognize the origin of this sequence. It comes straight out of Blue Velvet: the establishing shots of a parodic suburban “normality” followed by the plunge into a hidden, monstrous “underworld.”

It’s as if Linklater were showing up not only the lie of fast food culture but also the arbitrariness, the delight in cliché and mere cleverness, in David Lynch’s famous opening scene. Here’s a real dirty underworld for you, Linklater seems to say. And by the same gesture, he admits: It’s only a movie.

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Short Take: The absurdly talented Argentine director Fabián Bielinsky, whose debut film was the caper Nine Queens, died earlier this year at age 47. He left behind one other film, which is now going into US release: a crime thriller titled The Aura. If I had another full column, I would tell you all about it. Instead, like the film’s epileptic protagonist, I find myself knowing but helpless, able only to say: This is an astonishing, haunting, compelling movie. Do whatever you can to see it.