By: Will Ashton (Three Beers) –
From a distance, McDonald’s embodies every fundamental aspect of the American Dream. Once a humble burger joint owned and operated by Richard and Maurice McDonald, two hard-working entrepreneurs hoping to make a name for themselves, the fast-food franchise became a fast, cheap and dependable global corporation, one which serves a sizable portion of the world population. The golden arches is a symbol as recognizable as the dollar sign and the American flag — and that’s not an accident. McDonald’s is everywhere and anywhere around the world. Even the Vatican City has one! Yet, the conglomerated company remains as red, white and sparkling blue as anything in these ole’ United States.
The prices are cheap. Employment rates are high. The food is quickly made. It’s basically the cornerstone of profitability. Millions, maybe even billions, of customers are served by the hour. It’s the easy, greasy, sometimes quite sleazy high mark of capitalism. It is what we, the American people, believe to be the epitome of business elitism, right next to Coke, Apple, Nike, and Wal-Mart. It is also one of the most ruthless, soul-crushing stories in American history, lead by businessman Ray Kroc’s relentless desire to steal one’s namesake from their naked hands, as made evident by John Lee Hancock’s biopic The Founder. One doesn’t get successful with clean hands. One doesn’t rise to the top without stomping on those that grapple at the bottom. Power isn’t often won by love and kindness in the cut-throat world of business. Greed isn’t merely good; greed is king. For better or worse, The Founder is a product of the Trump era.
Michael Keaton plays Kroc like a weasel that wormed into a bargain-bin suit. His toothy, conniving, and utterly slimy swindler huckster with blurred visions of grandeur and hard-wrought self-importance is seen on his last legs when we first meet him in the heart of St. Louis, MO, 1954. Fumbling between one failed product to the other in a desperate attempt to make his wage, Kroc is in dire straits to sell a big, clunky milkshake mixer to every local drive-in diner in the area. You’d almost feel bad for him if he wasn’t such a dirtbag. Finding little success and a lot of headaches, Kroc’s ready to throw his hat in the ring when he gets an unexpected boost in profit, all from a single buyer. Curious to meet his most lucrative client in ages, Kroc drives all that way to California to discover McDonald’s, a local enterprise that serves quick-to-order burgers and fries in paper bags. Minus silverware. Astounded and impressed by their profitability, accessibility, and instant reliability, Kroc sees a big, bright future for the McDonald’s brand. But Mac (John Carroll Lynch) and Dick (a mustache-less Nick Offerman) are skeptical of expanding, to say the least.
Built on earnestness and good intentions, McDonald’s wasn’t meant to be your average drive-in destination. Rather, it was a chance for Mac and Dick to provide the best, friendliest service restaurant they could provide, and they couldn’t give such care and gratification beyond their humble quarters. But Ray quickly woos them with the promise of nationwide recognition and acclaim, and Mac — a performer at heart — sees this business growth as a chance to build the empire they once dreamed for themselves. Though Dick remains concerned, they agree to let Ray take the money and run with it. Boy does he ever.
The Founder doesn’t pretend Kroc is a good person. He’s greedy, vicious, malicious, selfish, petty, arrogant, vigilant, defiant, short-tempered, merciless, inconsiderate, and just plain mean, and that’s how he’s depicted in this dramatization. While Hancock’s other films, notably The Blind Side and Saving Mr. Banks, egregiously sugarcoated the true-life events that inspired them, sometimes to laughable results, this one is darker, nastier, and more thematically mature than anything attached to Hancock’s name. That doesn’t make it documentary-level factual, of course, but The Founder hopes to shake the stigma that he’s often associated with – if even to a mild extent. This one is grounded, cynical, and disparaging where Hancock’s other films were uplighting and cloyingly cheerful, and in a few key scenes, it rings more honest and compelling. Those looking for a feel-good crowdpleaser should look elsewhere. Hancock’s latest channels David Fincher more than Disney’s “based on a true story” dramas.
That said, The Founder doesn’t completely feel genuine or assured. Worse, it’s confused and messy in its depiction of this mournful tale of bleak capitalism and consuming consumerism. It’s written by Robert D. Siegel, the former editor-in-chief of The Onion turned screenwriter behind Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler, which is excellent, and writer/director of Big Fan, which is also quite good. His screenplay, even under Hancock’s direction, reads as spiteful and indignant of Kroc’s ill-gained success. Siegel doesn’t blanket his contempt and disgust of his malicious principles; the writer seems to find little sympathy in Kroc’s rise to the top of the food chain – in more ways than one. That’s what makes Hancock’s little bursts of compassion for Kroc feel awkward, unwarranted, and, at worse, poorly-handled.
Throughout The Founder, you get the sense that Siegel loathes Kroc, all while Hancock holds a weird admiration for his intense gain. Such a disconnect in viewpoints could’ve been deeply fascinating, yet under Hancock’s direction, the drama often finds itself settled somewhere down the middle, unable to mine much compassion for the businessman, but not making Kroc savage enough — or fully developed enough — to become a fascinating, richly nuanced character study. As it stands, The Founder is a bit of a flounder. Not hosed down enough to be a splashy – if entertaining – crowdpleaser, nor ballsy enough to give us the hard-edge, largely-unforgiving look at Kroc’s heartless ascension into capital dominance, Hancock’s sometimes thoughtful, but mostly apprehensive biopic can’t quite find its balance.
It also doesn’t help that The Founder is, in terms of pacing and style, a pretty clunky film. The Social Network is, to some extent, a clear influence, and Hancock’s unsexy, glamorless approach to its product, i.e. the sweet, juicy, succulent burgers, helps separate it from recent cinematic delves into sin and corruption like, say, The Wolf of Wall Street or last year’s War Dogs. Hancock lacks Fincher’s meticulous directness, however. No offense, but he’s not on par with the man behind Gone Girl and Se7en. His filmmaking style here isn’t very distinct or visually interesting. He’s not incompetent, but it’s not good when the only thing sizzling on-screen is the grills. Such starkly blank composition could be compelling if done right, but that’s seemingly not Hancock’s ambition here. If it weren’t for the performances, which are all routinely good, even when their characters are not, it would be entirely bland.
The Founder jumps from scene-to-scene with all the cinematic sophistication of by-the-numbers TV movies. It has no real flair or form. It lacks the energy or enthusiasm to make itself stand out among the other awards-hungry releases that came out these past few months, and it makes it a dull and often unsatisfying viewing experience. It also doesn’t help that Laura Dern and Linda Cardellini are given some of the weakest female supporting characters I’ve seen in the theater in quite some time, while reliable players Patrick Wilson and B.J. Novak are also largely wasted or forgotten throughout the running time.
As far as mediocre fact-based movies go, The Founder is at least occasionally interesting in its undercooked telling. As one would expect, Keaton is very good as this smarmy, despicable lead role, and Lynch and Offerman have no problem providing the underlying heart in good measure. It’s a wonder McDonald’s signed off on it at all, and they should be applauded – if not a lot – for their willingness to have their well-known label be seen in an unsympathetic light. But at the end of the day, is any film really going to bring down McDonald’s? Unlikely. Not even Super Size Me could put a sizable dent in their profits, and that documentary was largely (if sometimes loosely) factual in its condemnation.
The Founder is critical, pessimistic storytelling, yet not to the degree needed to make it worth celebrating. This movie makes you feel as good-hearted as woofing down a large Big Mac meal in five minutes will to your digestion. But at what cost? What good comes from half-fulfilling filmmaking? The story of how a dick became an asshole isn’t all that interesting unless we feel like we’ve gotten somewhere. The Founder doesn’t make you love those who turned McDonald’s a world-recognized brand, but that’s not enough to make you consider this one a good film. It’s cheap, digestible, and serviceable in all the wrong ways.
The Founder (2016) Drinking Game
Take a Drink: anytime Ray Kroc swindles people.
Take a Drink: every time someone says ‘McDonald’s’ and/or ‘burger’.
Take a Drink: every time Ray drinks. Cheers!
Take a Drink: every time you see the golden arches in all their arch glory.
Take a Drink: every time you feel bad for Laura Dern. Both the actress and her character.