Interlocking stories make up Fast Food Nation, the screen adaptation of Eric Schlosser's book decrying Corporate America's inexorable takeover. Illegal Mexican immigrant Raul (Wilmer Valderrama) finds work at a meat-packing plant which puts out the quickie fare made famous by the "Mickey's" food chain. Conditions there are literally crappy, as there is an actual percentage of feces in the beef, something Mickey's marketing veep Don Henderson (Greg Kinnear) discovers and which the company, naturally, wants covered up. But, in the face of this juggernaut of power, money and basic evil, what can you do?

Richard Linklater directed and co-wrote the script with Schlosser, making this an often compelling exercise in muckraking. You are drawn into the lives of Raul and his girlfriend Sylvia (Catalina Sandino Moreno) and the daily hell they face in the bloody abatoir where they eke out a living, under the brutal, sexually harassing rule of their foreman Mike (Bobby Cannevale, relishing his role's vileness). You root for Henderson, a likable Average Joe with an amusing penchant for cable-access hotel porn, as he uncovers the layers of mendacity in his travels to heartland America, dotted with its ubiquitous Taco Bells, McDonald's, Arby's, Fuddrucker's, ad nauseam. And then you wish that Linklater had less of the slacker in his filmmaker soul and maybe more of the spirit of early Warner Bros., which, in its social exposés of the 1930s, told their stories with just as much heart and humanity, but with a far preferable swift economy. It takes forever for the film to get off the ground with mysterioso shots of the illegal immigrants crossing the border, intercut with other, unrelated establishing scenes which only diminish any true sense of angst you might feel about their plight.

The movie gains pace and involvement at the meat plant, but then the filmmakers start wandering again, and decide to make a case for Generation Z, depicting them as far from the apathetic wastes of space they get branded as, with the likes of the glamorously blonde Avril Lavigne, playing a concerned student activist determined to set those poor cows in Mickey's pens free. A fellow activist, Amber (an appealing Ashley Johnson), encounters her nonconformist uncle (Ethan Hawke), who then gets into a rambling extended topical debate with Amber's heretofore apolitical-seeming barfly mom (Patricia Arquette). More unexpected stars like Bruce Willis (as a slimy corporate honcho) and a gruffly effective Kris Kristofferson (playing an Old School rancher) pop up, making this feel at times like a Robert Altman socially minded guest-fest. Certain subplots, like two Mickey's workers planning to rob the store, take up more time and then dissipate into nothingness.

When Raul is seriously injured in his workplace with its plethora of unsafe, unsanitary conditions, he is wrongly accused of drug use by a white-bread company spokesman, who nearly twirls a metaphorical moustache with villainous glee. And then there's Linklater's big denouement on the gutting floor, with its stomach-turning shots of miserable cattle being slaughtered and vivisected, making you wonder who we are supposed to hate: the magnates of fast food, or meat-eaters in general?