Monday, January 18, 2021

Tonight's Movie: The Founder (2015)

THE FOUNDER (2015) stars Michael Keaton as businessman Ray Kroc, who developed McDonald's restaurants into a global empire.

The title has a bit of irony in that Kroc, of course, did not actually found McDonald's, which was started by brothers Dick (Nick Offerman) and "Mac" (John Carroll Lynch) McDonald.  The McDonalds also developed innovative efficiency methods which allowed for quick service, or what we know today as "fast food."

That said, it was Kroc's vision to take the restaurants nationwide via franchises which were closely controlled to ensure uniform standards and consistency.  Six years after going into partnership with the McDonald brothers and opening his first franchise in Illinois, Kroc bought the McDonalds out and the rest is history.

THE FOUNDER was written by Robert Siegel and directed by John Lee Hancock, who has helmed a number of very good "true-life story" films including THE ROOKIE (2002), THE BLIND SIDE (2009), and THE HIGHWAYMEN (2019).  Hancock also wrote the screenplay for MIDNIGHT IN THE GARDEN OF GOOD AND EVIL (1997).

THE FOUNDER was interesting from start to finish, yet I had mixed feelings about its tone.

At its best the film celebrates American innovation, such as the McDonald brothers' Speedy system, and the ingenuity of someone like Kroc's financial advisor Harry Sonneborn (B.J. Novak), who made Kroc realize that the key to a successful franchise operation was to first and foremost be in the real estate business.

Where the film falls short is in its portrayals of the three lead characters.  It comes close to making fun of the McDonald brothers as staid traditionalists, despite the fact that they were also clearly visionaries. (A flashback sequence on their invention of the layout for their San Bernardino restaurant is a film highlight.) The movie at times veers too far toward portraying them as unbending rubes, though there are also some nice moments portraying the brothers' closeness and caring for one another.

That sort of dichotomy is even more apparent with the character of Ray Kroc.  Clearly Kroc was a fallible human being, i.e., his marriage to his first wife (Laura Dern) failed and, if the film is accurate, he took financial risks without telling her -- though that behavior might, as much as anything, have been born of its era.

However, the character lacks nuance, with the film hewing too closely to portraying Kroc as some sort of sleazy con artist salesman, right up to a broken handshake deal with the McDonalds when he purchased the company, which may not have actually been true.  The portrayal of Kroc as a person, via both the screenplay and Keaton's edgy performance, is uneasily juxtaposed with all the actions he actually took to do things right.  

For instance, there's something quite admirable about Kroc's vision of a clean, "family friendly" environment with uniform standards; why then, does the film essentially make fun of him for enforcing this, chewing franchise owners out on a golf course in hysterical fashion? 

And isn't it also interesting that a milkshake maker salesman could see something special in the McDonald brothers' restaurant and have big ideas for where the business could go, which proved more than successful?

Similarly, what about Kroc's ability to promote quality talent from within, such as burger flipper Fred Turner (Justin Randell Brooke), who would one day follow Kroc as the company CEO?  And I loved the insight of Kroc finding franchise owners who were interested in his "clean-cut" standards at churches, synagogues, and veterans groups.

The film showed these aspects of Kroc's work, yet there's a disconnect with its portrayal of Kroc the man.  As director Hancock says in a Blu-ray featurette, the viewer starts out rooting for Kroc but by the end of the movie isn't sure about him anymore; he's more of an antihero or perhaps even a villain.  Was that the right angle for the film to take?  

I'd like to suggest the movie could have better walked a line portraying a fully rounded human being while simultaneously omitting some of the negativity and celebrating his great American success story.  It feels instead rather as though the filmmakers went in trying to find a controversial or dramatically interesting hook, perhaps rooted in a desire to be critical of "big business," then squished facts to fit that tone rather than present something more balanced.  

I found the movie flawed but worthwhile; while not entirely successful, it's entertaining and thought-provoking, even when it leads to analysis which is critical of the film.

Keaton has some excellent moments, including his awe at the neon "golden arches" lighting the night sky, but jointly with the script his Kroc is at times almost disturbing.  There are quieter moments which hint at greater depth, but not enough to suit me, and as mentioned, the character's thoughtful actions are not always a match for the way he's otherwise portrayed.

For me the most interesting performance was Novak as Sonneborn; it's a relatively small role in the second half of the film but Novak really brings it alive.  The scripting here is also quite good, as Kroc learns that the way to control unruly franchises, not to mention the cautious McDonald brothers, is to own the land where the restaurants sit.

Dern is underutilized as Kroc's sad, quiet first wife Ethel, who attempts to be supportive but is often ignored.  

Linda Cardellini (Hawkeye's wife, Laura Barton, in Marvel's AVENGERS films) has more to do as Kroc's last wife, Joan. (Kroc's real-life second wife Jane is omitted from the film.) Joan's first husband Rollie is portrayed by Patrick Wilson (AQUAMAN, MIDWAY).

THE FOUNDER was filmed by John Schwartzman. It runs 115 minutes.

THE FOUNDER is available on Blu-ray and DVD.  The Blu-ray was an excellent print, and the disc included several informative featurettes.

The movie can also be rented for streaming from Amazon Prime.

A trailer is here.


Blogger SimpleGifts said...

Thank you for the thorough review, Laura. I'm interested in watching this film because I grew up in Illinois and our family often went to one of the first McDonald's for those 15 cent hamburgers (I'm dating myself!). Jane

11:51 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

You're welcome, Jane! That's a fun memory. I'd be very interested to know your take on the movie when you catch up with it.

Best wishes,

9:07 AM  
Blogger Tony Wendice said...

The film take A LOT of liberties with the truth as do most biopics but the whole time I was watching it I kept thinking "those MacDonald's hamburgers sure look more delicious than the flat, tasteless things we get today!!!!!"

I wonder if they really were?

3:05 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

I'd like to know the answer to that, Tony! (Haven't had a McDonald's burger in years...probably decades LOL. So many better options out there!)

Best wishes,

3:13 PM  
Blogger mel said...

I have never been a McDonald's fan, but when I read the article in the Los Angeles Times the other day, I made a vow never to enter one again (I'm not in the USA but there are four or five branches in our city).

Link to article:

1:05 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Hi Mel! Great to hear from you.

There are definite issues described here, but as the article also says, "It’s unclear whether McDonald’s has had more outbreaks at its locations or done a poorer job than other fast-food businesses at protecting its workers."

The LA Times isn't known for agenda-free reporting so although I'm a longtime subscriber, I always tend to wonder if I'm getting the complete picture, just FYI. And since McDonald's is a franchise system with a lot of individual autonomy despite the overarching corporate control, it might be fair to keep visiting your local stores if they seem well-run.

But I say that as someone who only ever eats breakfast there anyway, usually when traveling; like you, I'm not really a fan. When it comes to burgers, give me In 'N Out, Five Guys, Fatburger, Freddy's, or any number of other options, including our favorite local diner!

Best wishes,

8:50 AM  

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