2017 | rated PG-13 | starring Michael Keaton, Nick Offerman, John Carroll Lynch, Laura Dern | directed by John Lee Hancock | 1hr 55mins |
Studio Pitch: The inspiring true story of how McDonald’s became a worldwide success. Inspiring for psychopaths.
First, a contrast. For a look at how studio biography pictures can go sideways, take a gander at Flash of Genius starring Greg Kinnear, an entirely generic feel-gooder where Robert Kearns is practically anointed for sainthood by the movie for standing up against the Detroit big automakers to protect his invention, the intermittent windshield wiper. That’s how most inventor biographies go. Nice, family man just trying to get by invents a product in his garage and fights the Goliath big industry who wants to screw him out of it. It’s why David Fincher’s The Social Network is such a modern classic, because it flips that script. Like Mark Zuckerberg in Fincher’s film, the Ray Kroc who builds the McDonald’s empire of The Founder is the Goliath, ruthlessly using anyone in his path to success.
His manic, villainous performance here is another feather in the cap for Michael Keaton’s career renaissance. Keaton goes a long way to drive the movie making Kroc both the frightening snake-in-the-grass and the enthusiastic salesman required to keep people believing in him. Kroc starts out as a door-to-door milkshake machine salesman in 1954 until one day when he stumbles on a small burger stand in San Bernardino, California that bucks every trend for how drive-thru fast food stands are run. Enthused by their innovations, the McDonald brothers (Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch, perfect) show him how it works and become reluctant partners as Kroc quests across the country to franchise the business.
The first third of The Founder is it’s most compelling. We get to see how the McDonald brothers innovated the nuts and bolts of the industry, encountering and solving every inefficiency with fast food production and how they redesigned the burger and their kitchen to minimize customer wait time. In the best scene in the film, they take to a tennis court, sketching out the layout of the kitchen on the ground and choreograph their staff around each station like actors in a Lars Von Trier movie, re-arranging things until it becomes a ballet of maximum efficiency.
The rest of the film moves like a snake slowly digesting a rat as Kroc finds every legal loophole to take the innovations of the McDonald brothers for himself piece by piece. Again, Keaton is great here, but working alone, on a level of nuance the script lacks. The film presents Kroc as a modern day fast food robber baron, pillaging through the work of simpler people. It plays less like a film and more like an expose – no moments of introspective drama or 3D character exploration are to be found. It feels like something that would better play as a documentary. In this form it drags in the middle and nearly runs out of gas at a 2 hour length. The Founder for sure would have benefited from a more efficient editor.
Dare I suggest the movie dares to be an antagonist biography is because McDonald’s – as opposed to the intermittant windshield wiper – is a big, easy, target. So it’s not daring at all. It’s as American as a single-serving slice of apple pie. It is seen by many alongside Walmart as a symbol of American commercial imperialism around the world, so The Founder fits right into the Hollywood narrative that all big businesses got their success from ill gotten gains, lying, cheating, stealing and greed. It is by all accounts a true story: Kroc was a snake who screwed out his business partners. But a less one-note, more complex account of Kroc’s life would have made a better movie. What motivates Kroc? What made him this bastard? You won’t know from The Founder. The end of the film provides a stat that McDonald’s feeds 1% of the world population. How many of those would otherwise starve?
John Lee Hancock is a studio hire who makes straight-forward, vanilla, feel good quota films. As evidence that studios aren’t out in a quest for truth, but geared toward the easiest narrative that can be sold to the masses, one only look at Hancock’s last film: Saving Mr. Banks. The story of how author P.L. Travers was reluctantly cajoled into selling the rights to “Mary Poppins” to Walt Disney. Banks seems to have no idea how manipulative and distasteful it looks, presenting it all as a Disney-glorified fluffy, feel good story that makes Walt the good guy who pries the inner child out of cold, rigid Travers – who, herself, just needs to get over her daddy issues. It’s not hard to imagine a McDonald’s origin story with that same level of fluff. The Founder takes on the more cynical role of the antagonist biography, but it does so because in this case that’s the easier path and without any intellectual curiosity. A truly great robber baron story would show the omelet that changed the world instead of just the broken eggs.