The Founder (2017) – Movie Review
Directed by: John Lee Hancock
Written by: Robert D. Siegel
Starring: Michael Keaton, Nick Offerman, John Carroll Lynch, Laura Dern, Patrick Wilson & Linda Cardellini
Music: Carter Burwell
Release Date: February 17th 2017
Ever since the critical, commercial and awards success of David Fincher’s/Aaron Sorkin’s ‘The Social Network‘ back in 2010, it feels like a new brand of biopic has begun to emerge throughout this decade; the exposure of popular institutions, or at least a dressing down of iconic legacies. Whether it’s films like ‘The Theory of Everything‘, ‘Steve Jobs‘, ‘Lincoln‘ and the upcoming ‘Churchill‘, ‘Goodbye Christopher Robin‘, a trend is emerging in an age where history is more accessible in an information-age that maybe the past wasn’t so rose-tinted. Which is why it seems strange that director John Lee Hancock is helming a movie based on the morally-dubious rise of the fast-food chain McDonalds; a director who made ‘The Blind Side‘ (a banal “Of course White People save the day” movie) and ‘Saving Mr. Banks‘ (where Disney essentially get to re-write the history of ‘Mary Poppins‘ to make them appear in a positive light).
But front-and-centre we find Michael Keaton who is having a late-in-life career resurgence being nominated for an Academy Award for his lead performance in ‘Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)‘ and being one of the leads in the “Best Picture” Winning ‘Spotlight‘ a year later. He’s also set to be in one of 2017’s biggest movies with ‘Spider-Man: Homecoming‘. While ‘The Founder‘ almost seemed a shoe-in for some awards-love, the film has mostly made headlines for Weinstein Controversies with the company mishandling the film’s distribution and being sued as a result, meaning it has had basically no awards-push. Is it best that the story of McDonalds remain unheard or is there some secret ingredient here that needs to be known about.
Roy Kroc (Keaton) is a travelling Milkshake Mixer salesman in the 1950s. While he rarely has any sort of success he’s astonished when he receives an order from the McDonald Brothers Maurice (Lynch) and Richard (Offerman) for eight mixers. Intrigued by an operation that can handle an order like that, he goes to investigate the restaurant in San Bernardino, California and discovers a potential money-making opportunity to franchise it, but the McDonald Brothers aren’t so enthusiastic at the idea. As Kroc’s plan starts to unfold, he frames himself as the “Founder” of McDonalds and begins to take steps to push the McDonald Brothers out of their own company and legacy.
‘The Founder‘ not only does a compelling job at giving the audience a window into the early history of McDonalds, but also an insight into the restaurant-industry between the 1920s and the 1950s with Roy Kroc sitting down with the McDonalds brothers early on in the film to hear their story. It’s a typical “American-Dream” narrative where two brothers from East-America start working as Truck Drivers for movie studios before opening a theatre-chain before the “Great Depression”, then opening a hot-dog stand (because people “still gotta eat”), then a drive-in restaurant which had many inherent drawbacks, which then grew into a restaurant chain with a system devised by the detail-driven Richard allowing food to be served in “30 seconds, not 30 minutes”.
While ‘The Founder‘ is keenly aware of the shady dealings that Roy Kroc incorporated to the McDonalds company and its actual founders, it also lavishes adoration to the original brothers and their innovations. For example, they popularised outdoor restaurants where people got out of their cars to order, could take the food away without any cutlery or crockery and throw away the disposable packaging. In the 1950s, this was unheard of and it’s easy to see why Ray Kroc was so smitten with the brothers and their creation, which makes it all the more disheartening to watch history unfold as Roy Kroc essentially screws them over.
‘The Founder‘ oddly works as a advertisement for McDonalds, an insight into 1950s business which was a transitionary period for investors from Main Street to Wall Street and a film that feels ashamed of the history its re-telling. The film hurtles forward with a depressing inevitability which is inherent when depicting a company that everyone knows, yet likely doesn’t even know the names of the McDonald brothers. Ray Kroc was a savvy businessman and while he was able to find initial success franchising the operation to families who will look after their respective chains (middle-class retirees were too hands-off) it wasn’t enough for him so he exploited the real-estate market to take over the company.
The film is VERY exposition-heavy with reams of dialogue, possibly as a way to imitate ‘The Social Network‘. While ‘The Founder‘ doesn’t have the wit, or the spark of Sorkin’s screenplay, ‘The Founder‘ works as well as it does because the central cast are terrific. Michael Keaton portrays a sleazy, yet oddly respectable businessman with the gift of the gab, even if Kroc had dozens of failed ideas before he stumbled across the McDonald brothers. Keaton’s great in the role, that should go without saying, even how the pitch of his voice changes when he goes into a scripted pitch to a potential investor or a client is a level of detail many actors don’t go to.
Keaton’s performance risks overshadowing the rest of the cast, but thankfully Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch are very likeable and sympathetic. The duo have a legitimate rapport with each other and they make very believable brothers (although it’s initially off-putting seeing Nick Offerman WITHOUT a moustache). Laura Dern gets a rather thankless role as Ray Kroc’s first wife Ethel and while she does well with the material, it’s hard to see her character as anything more than a representation of the life Kroc is leaving behind as opposed to a fully-fleshed out character.
‘The Founder‘ is carried primarily by its true-life story which the film and screenwriter Robert D. Siegel stick very closely to true events for the most part and balances conflicts in the film with metaphors further emphasising the themes of the movie. When Ray Kroc wants to change the milkshake system at McDonalds to incorporate a cheaper, easy-to-store powdered system as opposed to storing and refrigerating buckets of ice cream at extreme costs, the McDonald brothers fight him on it because they consider the powder to be an inferior product. But the subtext presents Ray Kroc wanting to seize what the McDonald’s value and turn it into a money-making machine as opposed to a quality product. It’s a stolen American dream playing out on film.
The direction and cinematography is fine for the most part, nothing especially stands-out visually aside from the production design as the 1950s aesthetic is well-replicated and the recreation of the original McDonald stores is incredibly well done. That’s not to say ‘The Founder‘ looks bad, but the visual flair and panache that Oscar-nominated cinematographer John Schwartzman brought to ‘Saving Mr. Banks‘ and ‘Seabiscuit‘ feels absent here, almost made-for-TVish. Carter Burwell”s music (‘Anomalisa‘, ‘Carol‘, ‘Legend‘ and more) also feels like coasting. Not bad, but not much here.
‘The Founder‘ takes the audience on quite a journey from a inspiring story of a late-in-life entrepreneur’s success and an effective commercial for McDonalds, before managing to transition to a condemnation of American capitalism and a squandering of people’s history and values in the name of profit. Michael Keaton excels on screen and while its production feels rather un-ambitious and doesn’t quite have the textured dialogue of a Sorkin-picture, ‘The Founder‘ is still a very solid biopic that’ll make you regret enjoying that next Big Mac.
I give ‘The Founder‘ 4 stars out of 5.
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Posted: 11th Jan 18