The Founder (2017)
Dir.: John Lee Hancock
As retailers such as Wal-Mart and Amazon have monopolized modern consumerism with their guarantees of always low prices, always fast and efficient service, and endless convenience, local grocery stores and mom-and-pop shops across the country are quickly dying off. The quick-minded get-it-done mentality of the Western world have no time or patience for small businesses anymore. Alas, there was a time where small businesses and local places of commerce were accepted and cherished, with each place of business finding their niche and exploring innovative practices to the success of the owners involved. Such was the case for the local restaurant McDonald’s, as their innovative fast-food practices not only provided quick burgers with next to no wait times for their consumers, but also the ease of transportation and eating with their paper bag system, where you could take your food with you and eat it anywhere. The McDonald brothers enjoyed their local success for a great amount of time…until Ray Kroc showed up. This film tells not only the story of Kroc and the McDonald brothers, and how the former practically stole the business out from under the latter, but it also provides a commentary on the nature of the franchise monopolies that have come to overtake the world market. Part antihero biopic, part scathing business commentary, The Founder tells a good history of how one small business was transformed into arguably the biggest restaurant chain in the world.
In this film, Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton) starts off appearing relatively sympathetic. A career salesman that has always made ends meet as best he can by selling off-the-cuff materials, the newest product being a milkshake machine, Kroc shows an admirable hunger for success, as he attempts to find the newest innovation in the market, corner it, and use it to achieve his goal of making his mark in history. After he meets the McDonald brothers, however, and the film starts to show his rise as a head honcho behind the McDonald’s brand, he quickly starts to become intoxicated by his always latent ambitions, until he fully awakens as a kind of sleeper agent for a hostile takeover of the business itself. Keaton’s performance is captivating, and he’s completely believable as a fast-talking, manipulative and underhanded businessman. Similarly on-point, but not quite as cinematically invigorating, are John Carroll Lynch and Nick Offerman as the McDonald brothers: the former a little bit more subdued, the latter more direct and unwilling to be subjugated. There are some other surprising performances from actors whose appearances I won’t spoil, but for the most part, this is Keaton’s showcase, as he remains front and center while the audience witnesses Kroc’s underhanded, scummy rise to power.
The narrative combines standard biopic fare with a kind of influence that can be traced to the recent golden age of television: that of the cinematic antihero. Like Walter White and Don Draper, Ray Kroc’s character blends his ugly qualities with his beautiful ones. At his best, he’s a charismatic, articulate, and persuasive businessman. At his worst, he’s a conman with nefarious intentions to turn the hard work of the two brothers into his own personal empire. While this performance is not quite as transcendent Keaton’s self-referential turn in Birdman, he nonetheless carries the film even during its slowest moments. While the film admirably details the business plans that Kroc concocted that led to his takeover of the McDonald’s brand and his transforming it into the fast food empire it is today, some of the technical and financial machinations are explained a little bit too in depth. Though I believe the explanation process is to be commended for educational value, it does bog the film down a little bit, as these scenes merely serve as exposition dumps. These financial machinations could have been told more sparingly, perhaps through quick montages or faster scene transitions, but whole scenes dedicated to planning a real estate lease or mortgaging houses prove that this film could have been edited a little more tightly. I don’t necessarily think the scenes are bad, but they do add layers that take the focus away from what viewers truly care about: Kroc’s scheming.
The cinematography and score are nothing special. While the shots and score do serve their purpose, accentuating Kroc’s motivations and providing focus on one man’s quest to become a business tycoon and an American icon, they never transcend biopic fare in the vein of films like Selma or Steve Jobs. Nevertheless, director John Lee Hancock has shown his forte in biopics before, as he also directed The Blind Side and Saving Mr. Banks. Like those films before it, he relies on a strong central performance and a compelling care for details and accuracy to convey his cinematic vision, as small historical details beyond just car models and suits, like drive-in typographies and typewriter-made checks, are utilized to convey efficient cinematic integrity. Unlike those earlier films, however, Keaton’s character as well as his portrayal bring a little more bite to the film, because though he acts more despicable and underhanded as the film goes on, Hancock’s direction and narrative never truly tell the viewer to unequivocally support the man committing highly unethical--but never truly illegal--practices. The film also does fall prey to several biopic cliches, such as the faithful wife who is taken advantage of and spontaneous phone calls in the middle of the night. For all the film’s cliches and narrative shortcomings, however, Keaton is there to save the day, as his performance of a crooked legal-loop holing, selfish parasite remains remarkably, simultaneously invigorating and cringe-inducing.
The Founder is not without its shortcomings, but as it stands, it’s a worthy addition to both the director and the lead actor’s filmography. Its representation of the mostly unwilling transition of a small, local sweetheart business into a cold, international money-making powerhouse is as entertaining as it is worrisome and critical. The film’s final scenes, which I will not spoil, drive home the theme of corporate America and how it can crush dreams and distort the good intentions of the few for the perverse, petty desires of the many. It’s neither a cautionary tale nor a how-to guide for stealing businesses away from their creators; it’s simply a true story of a man who stole a dream, contorted it into his own fantasy, and not only got away with it, but left his mark on history, as McDonald’s becomes more successful every day, generating more revenue than many other businesses’ total grosses combined. Though Kroc’s determination and persistence is to be admired, his methodology and his refusal to play by moral guidelines do not necessarily make him a good idol to follow. The character is a complex one, but such is business itself. Business has a lot of moving parts, and as some move too far out, others collapse inward, never to be seen again. As we salute the fallen local businesses of the previous century, we also give rise to the age of two day shipping and 50% off sales. And so the money rolls in, and down and down the rabbit hole we go.