Blood, Salt and Tears

Film: The Founder
Year: 2016
Director: John Lee Hancock

There is fine line, a teensy-weensy one, between selling yourself in order to sell your product and unchecked egomania. Watching The Founder, it isn’t exactly clear when Ray Kroc slipped over that divide—we can tell only when he was too far gone to be rescued. The movie is smart to walk this delicate line as long as it does, and when toward the end we find ourselves in the despotic freefall that Kroc carved for himself out of a lifetime of failures and one trillion-dollar idea, we are lucky enough to have the tenured leading man Michael Keaton as our parachute.

The movie’s main thrust is, as you might expect, Keaton’s performance as the man who poached a happenin’ San Bernardino burger joint from its brainparents, brothers Mac and Dick McDonald, and businessmanned it into a coast-to-coast empire. Kroc was a textbook American Dreamer, perseverant for self-made success long past the point when meeker men would have woken up. In his 50s he was peddling milkshake machines that nobody wanted or needed and had a string of business ventures behind him so embarrassingly rotten that his go-to investment prospects would laugh as they saw him coming. Perhaps he couldn’t help, when he finally bumped into the idea that he was searching for, grasping it in his hand a bit too firmly. Keaton captures all of Kroc’s frustration and excitement in a portrayal that has the actor not so much “disappearing” into the character as expertly sculpting it beside him. Most impressive, I felt, is how he wriggles into scenes underneath his costars, like a salmon in the Black Sea, his squeaky motormouth somehow saying less than the stony refusals of his listeners. Keaton’s most overtly good work comes in the last act, when with a subtle shift he assumes (obsessive, outrageous) control of his life and business, but there’s a lot to be said for the earlier mountebank Kroc, and Keaton’s ability to command a scene while not commanding the conversation.

If The Founder ends up as only a dollar-menu edition of what could have been, then I suppose I can only point to the tepid direction by John Lee Hancock. Under his supervision—which, if you ask me, is a real misnomer in this case—the movie takes a safety-in-numbers approach to its coverage, skittishly hopping from one shot to another like a dinner party host so concerned with everyone’s comfort that they forget to savor the evening. This restless cutting works for behind-the-scenes peeks at the original McDonald’s kitchen model—a sleek, symphonic assembly hive that, though bastardized and outmoded by now, is successfully shown in all the Jobsian future-is-now innovativeness that the design exemplified in its time. In other places, the editing tends to distract from mostly well-written drama and a bizarrely immediate chemistry between Keaton and Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch as the jilted McDonald bros. Like with his previous The Blind Side, Hancock plays an unadventurous shepherd to material that seems a born crowd-pleaser. There’s nothing wrong with story-minded direction, of course, but I can’t help imagining how this story might have fared with an edgier director—why not its screenwriter, Robert D. Siegel, whose credits already include Big Fan, the script for The Wrestler, and captaincy of The Onion?

Then again, maybe edgy isn’t what this movie needed. I hear that, when Siegel penned the thing, it was projected to run in the darker vein of There Will Be Blood and The Social Network. But a grim and foreboding history of McDonald’s would have been the easy route, and probably a tired one, too. True, in Hancock’s hands The Founder seems held together by a used piece of tape, but it also features a certain sunny temperament that defies your garden-variety fast food exposé. The movie almost completely eschews questions of the health value and environmental impact of McDonald’s, and is downright inspiring in its admiration of the good old-fashioned entrepreneurship and engineering displayed by the real McDonald’s founders—and, more ambivalently, by Ray Kroc.

That said, The Founder is not without stormy weather. The rise of McDonald’s was indeed meteoric—in terms of the ascent to worldwide moguldom that Ray Kroc experienced as well as the ruination of quality control and proud proprietorship that befell Dick and Mac McDonald. It was meteoric in many other ways that are not explored here, but I didn’t mind the omissions; we know them by know. The Founder is concerned with how Ray Kroc snaked his way onto the McDonald’s throne and inevitably incurred a bad case of megalomania. It isn’t about the danger that franchising poses to society, it’s about the danger that franchising poses to individuals. It’s not about fast food, it’s about people. About opportunists like Ray Kroc, who saw fast food for what it was: the culinary paradigm of the twentieth century. As a closing title card informs us, McDonald’s now feeds 1% of the world population every day.