THE FOUNDER——a rewarding movie, its story rife with ironies, about a legend of marketing and promotion, was hardly seen, because it was poorly marketed and barely promoted. That this 2016 biopic, the saga of a generation and an institution as much as an individual, was made at all shows how impassive history has gulped the bygone years into a new era and reveals a titanic corporate monolith so secure you can flip it off with a skywriter and have as little impact on commerce and consciousness as their burgers do on nutrition and happiness.
1954: dogged, frustrated salesman Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton), peddling milkshake makers in the sweltering Illinois summer, decides to follow up an order from a client in California. A kick down Route 66 brings him to San Bernardino and a hopping neighborhood burger joint run like clockwork and with affection by two kindly, honest brothers named McDonald (Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch). Smelling gold in them there patties, Kroc spins the hesitant McDonald’s into an expansion scheme. Fame and riches await. So do deception and heartbreak. If you can’t stand the heat….
Smart writing from Robert D. Siegel and detail-sensitive direction by John Lee Hancock craft a 115-minute menu that loads a platter with several courses. The fare offers a zippy tribute to entrepreneurial spirit and never-say-die chutzpa; a wry, rueful meditation on cut-throat capitalist excess; a wistful period piece on a less-frantic time, when a handshake could (or should) mean more than a dotted line; a study in personalities, types destined to mesh and those never twained to meet.
Since Siegel’s screenplay and Hancock’s steering is objective and not polemic, their sympathetic portraits of the disparate, recognizably human players in this quintessential All-American Success & Failure Story strike true.* Thanks to fully persuasive casting, the characters and their invention, co-option, style and guile, naiveté and self-interest make for one amusing, charming, painful, bitter scene after another, as silly, efficient, and recognizable as those ingeniously gaudy arches that festoon/besmirch the planet from Peoria to Pago Pago. **
Ray Kroc’s zeal (wheel-deal/steal) strikes the perfect lit match in Keaton, hot on the wind of his welcome career reboot from Birdman and Spotlight. Restless, driven, alert, magnetic, callous, Keaton’s pitchman is every oxygen-devouring salesman you’ve ever dismissed or fallen for. He can’t lose, you can’t win. It’s testimony to this actors skill at minutely concentrating nervous energy so that his charm stays engaging even when his character’s actions are repellent.
The brothers McDonald are winning losers as played to perfection by Offermann and Lynch, almost a lower-case Abbott & Costello with an underlay of Shakespearean tragedy. You really want these nice guys to come out on top, but few of us are really ready for someone like Ray. “If I saw a competitor drowning, I’d shove a hose down his throat.”
Success rewards Kroc with kindred spirit Joan Smith. As played by Linda Cardellini, she calmly seduces the viewer as well, from the minute of her introduction, quietly stealing every scene she’s in (hard to do with Mr. Keaton). Milkshake powder never sounded so beguiling.
Among the co-signers and casualties are Laura Dern, Patrick Wilson, B. J. Novak (introducing Ray to the siren concept of real estate), Justin Randell Brook and Wilbur Fitzgerald. Neat soundtrack work from Carter Burwell, adroit cinematography credits John Schwartzman. Even at a trim $25,000,000, the badly fumbled studio rollout, a case of timing-flubs by the Weinstein’s (and maybe a scoop of public indifference—“who wants to see a movie about a fast-food chain? it doesn’t put Margot Robbie in hot pants and nothing blows up”) only found takers worth $21,300,000, and much of that was abroad. Then it was snubbed by the p.c. strangled Oscars. Too bad: crowds missed a tasty, filling dramatic entree, garnished with choice appetizers, well served by attentive chefs. A full meal deal.
* Though he modestly discounts it in interviews, John Lee Hancock has developed a rep for specializing in Americana, joining the rank of humanist-style national chroniclers like John Sayles, Richard Linklater and The Coen Brothers. Chance or choice, it’s a burgeoning résumé: The Rookie (baseball), The Alamo (Davy Crockett), The Blind Side (football), Saving Mr. Banks (Walt Disney), and The Founder (hamburgers). In an era dominated by megawatt violent cartoon nonsense, movies made of the people, by the people, for the people amount to patriotic gifts—the kind of thoughtful ruminations on our collective experience that don’t demand a moronic sieg heil chant of “USA!” to remind us of our address (besides, if I want to see a billboard-sized flag, I can walk over to McDonald’s). Keep ’em coming, John.
** Managers personal touch voucher: best McDonald’s hamburger I ever had was in Cairo, Egypt. Who knew? I didn’t have the cyanide nerve to look into the kitchen—wanderlust curiosity and backpacker bravery only goes so far.