UK Release Date: 17th February 2017
Runtime: 115 minutes
Director: John Lee Hancock
Writer: Robert D Siegel
Starring: Michael Keaton, Nick Offerman, John Carroll Lynch, Linda Cardellini, Laura Dern, Patrick Wilson, BJ Novak
Synopsis: A milkshake salesman spots the potential to make major money when he tries to flog his machines to two brothers who have developed an innovative fast food restaurant – McDonald’s.
There was a time, around a year ago, when it looked like Michael Keaton was going to be in the running for the Best Actor Oscar for his work in The Founder. His take on Ray Kroc, who took a small California burger restaurant and transformed it into a behemoth of the fast food industry, looked like exactly the kind of performance that the Academy would seize upon as a big American story. That did not transpire and The Founder languished in obscurity, with absolutely no Oscars buzz and very little success at the box office. None of that information does justice to the film, from director John Lee Hancock, which is an intriguing take on capitalist greed with a compellingly slimy central performance at its cholesterol-coated heart.
Ray Kroc (Keaton) is selling milkshake machines to drive-in restaurants when he is stunned to receive a huge order from one small store called McDonald’s, run by brothers Dick (Nick Offerman) and Mac (John Carroll Lynch). The restaurant uses a unique system to deliver food at speed to customers without them having to wait, which immediately piques Kroc’s interest. He negotiates his way into a deal with the brothers and begins to franchise their brand across America, crossing paths with wealthy businessman Rollie Smith (Patrick Wilson) and his glamorous wife Joan (Linda Cardellini) along the way. Tensions begin to flare when Kroc decides that the traditional McDonald’s values are holding back his rush towards capitalism.
With Saving Mr Banks, John Lee Hancock showed that he knows how to take an American success story and transform it into a light-hearted, entertaining prestige picture. In many ways, The Founder is a very old-fashioned film in its relatively frothy, straightforward telling of a story that really helped to shape the way American culture is today. Hancock brings a real energy to the film, helping it to move through its business meetings and contract negotiations with vim and vigour that keeps things entertaining and zippy. Writer Robert D Siegel is nifty with a one-liner and a rhythmic monologue, simplifying quite complex business matters into light, delicate dialogue.
Much of the success of The Founder lies in three terrific central performances. Keaton channels the best elements of his Birdman role as the sinister, but charming Ray Kroc. It’s clear that the character is a salesman and Keaton does a tremendous job of selling Kroc’s wholesome values to the audience, before gradually allowing the facade to slip as his nefarious intentions become clear. The film perhaps pulls back slightly in allowing him to turn into a legitimately loathsome person, but there’s enough here to hint at his darkness. Offerman and Lynch, meanwhile, are great as the McDonald’s brothers, who are played as the epitome of all-American family values and integrity. They’re a deliberately stark contrast to the monolithic corporate monster their brand has become.
The Founder does a stellar job at depicting the corrupting influence of the American Dream, which is clearly shown in the contrast between Kroc’s downtrodden, loyal wife Laura Dern and the more glamorous, blonder, younger Cardellini. Kroc is a character who is not content with what he has and he’s prepared to sacrifice even the best aspects of his life as a result of his constantly itchy feet. These traits make him a committed businessman, but they make him a lousy person and Dern’s performance is a masterclass in gradually being worn down and broken by a manipulative man.
For all of its narrative flair and subtle performance work, The Founder is somewhat undone by some of its narrative broad strokes. Sometimes the characters fall a little too neatly into convenient archetypes and there’s absolutely no nuance to Carter Burwell’s score, which tells the audience overtly what to feel at every possible opportunity. It intrudes into the narrative frequently and leaves a really sour taste behind, like an irritating and unwanted gherkin on an otherwise tasty Big Mac.
Pop or Poop?
A slimy turn from Michael Keaton is a great anchor point for this tale of American enterprise that feels tailor-made for a time when a pontificating entrepreneur is swaggering around the White House. John Lee Hancock lets the story unfold in compelling fashion and, but for a few major missteps, this is a glossy movie with real punch and intrigue that should have been far more of an awards contender this year.
Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.
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