Drop your hamburgers: Everyone’s favorite slacker has abandoned rotoscoping and Ethan Hawke–fueled existential monologue to dramatize Fast Food Nation. Richard Linklater turns Eric Schlosser’s exposé of America’s nightmare diet into intertwined, pathos-heavy narratives to remind us that the McShit we eat is served up by a brokedown corporate structure. It’s a kind of gastronomic Crash: Marketing exec Don (Greg Kinnear) investigates sanitation at a meat-processing plant on behalf of, ahem, “Mickey’s”; Mexican migrants Raul and Sylvia (Wilmer Valderrama and Maria Full of Grace’s Catalina Sandino Moreno) sneak into the U.S. and become plant workers; and angsty teen Ashley Johnson experiences anomie in her job at the local Mickey’s—which serves up the plant’s meat in its “Big Ones.” Linklater’s point is not subtle: People of every race, class, and citizenship play a part in the malling of America, the humanitarian disaster along the U.S.-Mexican border, and outbreaks of E. coli; it’s pessimism of gothic proportions. For fans of Todd Solondz’s examinations of misery, this may pass as art. Fast Food Nation’s characters are, without exception, compromised, becoming compromised, and/or in the process of fucking someone over, usually themselves. But it’s difficult to figure out what the film wants from us. Schlosser has said he was attracted to a fictional version of his book to avoid a documentary backed “by networks that had relationships with the fast food chains”—yet audiences dutifully report to independent cinematic powerhouses to munch buttery popcorn and receive prescribed doses of liberal cinema. As a call to arms, Fast Food Nation fails to inspire. And Linklater’s “shocker”—graphic slaughterhouse footage—is old news. All that remains is a litany of modern tragedies. There are some gems here, though: Kris Kristofferson as a disaffected rancher dissecting the corrupt meat industry, Bruce Willis as a member of that industry dissecting the country’s half-assed concern about “illegals,” and, yes, Hawke as a existential anti-suburbanite. What his “Now deal with this!” aesthetic doesn’t offer is a practicable first step out of the economic traps that result in McDonald’s and Wal-Mart. Without a plan of action, Fast Food Nation is just catharsis-free voyeurism.

—Justin Moyer