There’s a startling similarity in the taste of food served at McDonald’s and the overall flavor of the filmmaking dished out in “The Founder.” Directed by John Lee Hancock (“The Blind Side,” “Saving Mr. Banks“), like the menu items at the fast food franchise, the dramedy about the fraudulent creator of the restaurant chain is middle of the road, rarely takes risks, and aims to please the customer. Neither provide much sustenance, but there’s something to be said for convenience, speed, reliability and guilty pleasure. “The Founder” certainly does not reinvent the meal, but as a bite sized, consumable snack (that feels like 90 minutes though is actually much longer), its lively and entertaining spirit does often hit the spot. And surprisingly, though traditionally told, the narrative does unwrap a deceptive bite along the way.
Employing a light, crisp touch that eventually takes on a darker char, Hancock’s picture sketches out the Venn diagram where chance, ambition, power and appetite intersect. But intentional or not, “The Founder” also cleverly subverts the rise and fall narrative so common to films about the moment preparation and opportunity meet success. Part cautionary tale about inviting the fox into the henhouse, “The Founder” also acts as a rise and rise story with no comeuppance and little questioning of integrity. It’s notably unconventional in this regard.
An amiable affair until it isn’t, “The Founder” is unexpectedly complex and the way it unpacks a darker tale is startling. Utilizing the convivial tone of its Midwestern protagonist, Hancock inspects ambition and the birth of the fast food industry through the initially-warm eyes of Ray Kroc (a cunning Michael Keaton), a struggling salesman from Illinois, driven, but essentially over the hill. A huckster unsuccessfully beating down doors and yearning for more, through fate and salesman’s intuition, Kroc falls in with the old-fashioned bumpkins who originally conceived the McDonald’s restaurant; siblings Mac McDonald (John Carroll Lynch) and Dick McDonald (Nick Offerman). Creating a state-of-the-art industrial kitchen which places a premium on speedy delivery of fresh food to the patrons of their hamburger stand, Kroc marvels at their groundbreaking methodology of super productivity. It’s “revolutionary!” he tells his wife with a twinkle in his eye.
The innovative but stubborn McDonald brothers only appreciate the value of their product within their self-imposed San Bernardino boundary line. However, the insistent Kroc, depicted as the visionary of the narrative, wants to expand across the country through franchises. Their brothers’ steady supply of shortsightedness versus Kroc’s aggressive vision develops into the power struggle which fuels the picture and expands an auspicious little enterprise into a billion-dollar empire.
It all goes south or north from there depending on who you sympathize with, and it’s easy to swing either way, which is either the secret ingredient in the movie’s special sauce or the manner in which the filmmaker cannot get a full grasp of his protagonist — given some of the tonal issues, sometimes it’s hard to tell. Kroc’s initially the hero of the film; we root for him to overcome his obstacles and succeed because he flounders. But he quickly changes into the manipulative villain — “The Founder” is arguably the “Star Wars” prequel of the MacDonald’s success story, exploring how, good intentions aside, an Anakin-like entrepreneur was swayed to the dark side. Another reading of the menu is that Kroc was always an opportunist Hamburglar waiting to steal a scrap of any available idea, but kept his dark side well hidden.
The thorny reality is somewhere in between: at 52 years of age and almost washed out, Kroc identified McDonald’s as his last shot at greatness, and the revolutionary burger, soda and milkshake production possibilities awakened the sleeping giant of his determination. Either way, it’s rare that a movie asks you to empathize with its shifty, capitalistic protagonist/antagonist. Perhaps these are the dangerous values “The Founder” professes: with a charismatic Michael Keaton in the lead, the film renders its snake oil salesman relatable in a way not dissimilar to a certain orange orangutan you may have heard about. In the film’s questionable eyes, he “gets the job done” of bringing fast food to the masses, and so the end justifies the means.
Further fascinating is the movie’s ability to straddle its own moral ambivalence and not sink entirely. It’s as if the director shrugs to the viewer about Ray’s ethical regression, explaining, “Hey, we just work here.” It’s both wishy washy and absorbing to watch. All of this greasy thorniness is why “The Founder” really cooks.
While Hancock’s drama doesn’t necessarily celebrate its protagonist’s hostile corporate takeover nor his slowly-unfolding transformation from dreamer to despot outright — at least not at first — it certainly doesn’t censure him either (even Gordon Gekko got his in the end). “The Founder” feels no obligation to redeem the character’s slide to amorality and it does champion his very-American ambition and persistence. A movie about a guy who screws over his partners in business and becomes the clear-cut winner in the end? We’ve got a distinct victor for the title of Trumpiest film of 2017 so far.
And so, the filmmaker’s perspective is troubling. “The Founder” tries to peddle Kroc as a maverick, a forward-thinking outsider, one who just, you know, happens to box out and cheat his pioneering business partners in the (self) interest and virtue of bringing McDonald’s into the homes of millions of Americans (#hero). More egregious, the movie paints the inventive McDonald’s bros broadly as myopic hayseeds — small-town boobs who deserved to be cheated out of their fortune, because of their refusal to go along with whatever would increase profits tenfold. “The Founder” is constantly validating and normalizing Kroc’s plutocratic, entrepreneurial gall and considering the shady coup d’état within the plot, the movie’s blithe smile is insidiously dissolute. It’s “Steve Jobs” without the self-awareness.
Given this approach, perhaps not recognizing its lead as odious, as suggested, it’s not entirely clear if the movie is truly cognizant of the monster inside it — John Lee Hancock might be the Jimmy Fallon of filmmakers. But inspired collaborators like composer Carter Burwell, cinematographer John Schwarzman (“The Rock,” “Jurassic World”), screenwriter Robert D. Siegel (a former The Onion Editor-In-Chief and scribe behind “The Wrestler”) and editor Robert Frazen (“Synecdoche, New York”), go far in enabling the movie’s best tendencies.
And sometimes thanks to these above-the-line craftsmen, the movie truly shines, particularly when it acts as a cracking and crisp business procedural into the rapid fast-food making process. The MVP however is easily Burwell’s nuanced score that charts the textured emotional and moral journey of Ray Kroc.
While it’s not necessarily saying a lot, “The Founder” is John Lee Hancock’s best film. Like Mickey Dees, the often-dubiously minded matter doesn’t offer a lot of substance on the surface, but it does give the viewer plenty to digest. As a salutation to the dark side of the American Dream, the message of “The Founder” tastes foul. As a movie with a knotty palate; I’m not lovin’ it, but I’m not hating on it either. Disturbingly, perhaps what “The Founder” is truly trying to articulate is that flavor, much like innovation, is beside the point. [B]