Would you like fecal matter with that?

“Fast Food Nation”Fox Searchlight PicturesDirected by Richard LinklaterWritten by Linklater and Eric Schlosser, based on his bookStarring: Greg Kinnear, Catalina Sandino Moreno, Wilmer Valderrama, Ashley Johnson, Ethan Hawke, Bruce Willis and Kris KristoffersonRated R/116 minutesOpened Nov. 17, 2006Three-and-a-half out of four stars

Between watching Morgan Spurlock’s waist-expanding documentary, “Super Size Me,” and Richard Linklater’s muckraking drama, “Fast Food Nation,” you may never want to eat an assembly-line hamburger again.

How could one possibly look at a Big Mac patty the same way after learning that large amounts of fecal matter make it into the beef during the butchering process at the meat packaging plant? The all-consuming corporations already ask us to eat crap every time we buy some precooked, microwaved, heat-lamped grease bomb. Now they want us to eat crap for real just to cut corners and make a few (million) bucks.

That’s the story in “Fast Food Nation,” a dramatization of Eric Schlosser’s non-fiction book examining the fast-food industry on a socio-economic scale and at the level of the food itself. Schlosser’s investigative journalism made the not-too-surprising discovery that’s there’s very little “meat” in the meat McDonalds pushes. In fact, poor conditions at the meat packaging plants (including the exploitation of illegal immigrants) virtually guarantee that either some dude’s chopped-off finger or some cow’s posthumous sac of intestinal goodies spills into the beef we chow down on. Yummy.

Linklater crams Schlosser’s sprawling book into an equally sprawling movie–it’s a huge ensemble piece that follows many stories and many people at all levels of the fast-food chain, from the money-minded executives to the cannon-fodder immigrant workers. Some of the pieces aren’t as effective as others, but the whole is fascinating, darkly humorous and even kind of scary. It’s rare we see a film with as much scope and ambition as this, not to mention fiery (shall we say “flame-broiled?”), finger-wagging passion for its subject.

Offered on the menu: Greg Kinnear as the fast-food marketing bigwig sent to investigate the aforementioned fecal matter in his company’s product, tracing it to a meat packaging plant in the fictional Colorado town of Cody; Bruce Willis as the hard-truth liaison between the plant and Kinnear’s company; Ashley Johnson (former “Growing Pains” tot, current hottie) as a high school-aged fast-food clerk who dreams of bigger and better things; Catalina Sandino Moreno (Oscar-nominated for “Maria Full of Grace”) as a Mexican border hopper; Ana Claudia Talancon as her sister, who gets a job at the packaging plant, both as an assembly line worker and as her supervisor’s disposable joy toy; and Wilmer Valderrama as Moreno’s husband, who also gets a job at the plant and discovers the hard way just how little his American bosses care about him as a person.

Phew! And there’s at least a dozen other characters, like Ethan Hawke’s fast-talking uncle to Johnson and “Little Miss Sunshine’s” Paul Dano as a gloomy hamburger flipper, all of whom make brief impressions before being scuttled to the sidelines in favor of their more interesting cast-mates.

Linklater ends his movie with an uncensored eyeful of the killing room floor, where cows are ushered in alive and brought out in easily consumable pieces. Grisly, yes–but it’s all the lies, shattered dreams, manipulations, corner-cutting and greed involved in putting a Whopper on the tray in front of us that really makes me queasy.

Oh, and the crap isn’t that appetizing, either.

“OK kids, here you go–one finger burger, two Chicken McTesticles and a?vanilla shake. Sweet.” Luis Guzman plays devil’s delivery boy in “Fast Food Nation.”