Directed by John Lee Hancock
Opens January 20
Morally bankrupt biopic The Founder tells the story of Ray Kroc, who stole someone else’s hamburger stand and turned it into a poisonous megacorporation that embodies the worst of America—except, in the film’s estimation, that somehow makes him a national hero. Because… business? Kroc makes savvy, self-serving deals, leeches off others and rises to the top of his profession despite (or, because of!) his being terrible, horrible, no good and very bad. That is, he’s such a Trump—a McDonald without the Mc—and this admiring, outrageous movie, as phony as the food it glorifies, celebrates his Trumpness.
The fault belongs not so much to screenwriter Robert D. Siegel (The Wrestler, Big Fan), who includes copious moments of vile behavior, as it does to director John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side, Saving Mr. Banks), who depicts every one of them as some shrewd maneuver. Fine, Kroc abandoned his neglected, hard-trying wife, swearing he’d rather die than give her a single share of McDonald’s stock. But c’mon—what self-made success wouldn’t exchange a mopey, frumpy Laura Dern for a glamorous, ambitious, and platinum-haired Linda Cardellini? (Yes, Hancock transforms Jurassic Park’s proud, powerful, velociraptor-defeating shero into a disposable nag.) Sure, Kroc may have taken away the McDonald brothers’ company and their name, but they were a bunch of obstructionist, reactionary, Schrute-stylish yokels. Hancock, it seems, cast Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch not so much for their resemblance to their characters (which is vague) or their skill as actors (which is great) but for their maximizable schlubbiness.
Plus, the McDonalds got paid off, so there’s no problem as far as Hancock seems able to see, especially when he overpowers your objections with triumphant montages and heroic musical cues. Plus, Kroc has the charisma of Michael Keaton—and his weirdness, like Kroc contains a bit of Beetlejuice somewhere deep inside: his eyes dart, his mouth is spastic, his head is rooster-crazy. His center of gravity seems somewhere between his nostrils and the roof of his mouth. Keaton’s Kroc is otherwise a luckless dreamer, a mediocre inventor, salesman and husband who finally gloms onto something big. And who doesn’t want to see Michael Keaton succeed (besides the Academy members who voted for Eddie Redmayne in 2015)?
The film opens with him trying to sell milkshake spindles to Missouri drive-ins, where the food takes forever and the servers get the orders wrong. Then he hears about this new place way out in San Bernadino, where everything’s disposable, pared down to the essentials and assembled on a line. Food, for the first time, is fast. Carter Burwell’s score is often variations on Ravel’s Bolero, the McDonald’s of music—predictable and kinda ingenious. Hancock is as adoring of the McDonalds’ service-industry ingenuity as Kroc, and there’s charm to their innovations, I guess, but what really gets Hancock excited is how Kroc was able to franchise their business model, spread it across the country and turn it into a profitable real estate scheme, making billions not off of a thing with inherent value but a business structure, while he changed the way America eats.
Of course, that was to persuade us to eat gross garbage, which the film never even winks at. The only remarks about the quality come from Keaton, lines such as, “this is the best hamburger I’ve ever tasted.” Is it the only hamburger he’s ever tasted? (I can’t ever forget that scene in Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation in which scientists show him the test tubes filled with “flavors,” and he smells the chemical that gives taste to the processed-potato texture-sticks we call french fries.) When Kroc figures out he can replace ice cream with packets of milkshake Instamix, Hancock portrays it as just another clever innovation. It wasn’t. It was one more way Ray Kroc destroyed things that were good and decent in this country to increase profits. To heck with him, and this movie, which is just a For Your Consideration McDonald’s commercial. Ba-da ba ba barf.