Friday, October 27, 2017

Movie Review: The Founder

Directed by John Lee Hancock (2016)

There is something satisfying about a simple character piece. No complex plot obscures the crisp lines of the arc and no subplots complicate the drama. In the case of John Lee Hancock’s The Founder, not even any style or spectacle attempts to amp up the drama: the movie is all plot and character. The character is Ray Kroc, the founder of McDonald’s, and the plot is of his ambition to raise to greatness the California burger joint of the cautious McDonald brothers and in doing so raise himself.

The manner in which the script plunges us into the plot without lengthy introduction and backstory is a reminder–and a needed one given Hollywood’s obsession with the origin stories–that detail can sometimes be disposed of without loss. We don’t need fifteen minutes of 1950’s nostalgia a la Happy Days, nor do we need the backdrop of the Cold War against which our capitalist drama can unfold, nor do we need the whole life story of the protagonist. We need to know that Ray Kroc was having a lousy time hocking his wares and that in 1954 he saw that the ingenious efficiency and homely charm of the McDonald brothers’ restaurant was a river of gold that only need to be un-dammed.

Actually it needed a new course plotted too, and the path needed to be cut and dredged, and the boats on the river needed to be captained and then managed. The whole project needed to be financed too. The movie’s introduction is then not perfunctory preface but Ray’s struggle to wrest just enough control from the McDonald brothers to franchise the restaurants. The script draws fine lines between the different types of creators. We have the inventor, Dick McDonald (played by Nick Offerman), who created the systematization that introduced the world to the 30-second hamburger, shown distinct from the manager (Mac McDonald), who runs the brothers restaurant like clockwork. In contrast to both we have Ray (Michael Keaton), who has the tenacity and most of all the unbridled desire to turn McDonald’s into a national chain. No one plays all the parts well.

To the fussy, conservative brothers Ray brings guts and a vision for greatness. While Dick and Mac pour over minutiae like fry-time, Ray is out breaking ground on new restaurants and hustling to find the best managers for new franchises. Yet as Ray’s success grows so does his ego, no longer obscured behind failed sales pitches for mixers and folding kitchen tables. So grow both until at list his egotism gives way to hubris when he identifies himself as the founder of McDonald's, beginning his moral decline.

The faithful wife (played by Laura Dern), who endured his failed salesmanship, spent months alone while he traveled, supported his efforts to franchise McDonald’s to clients, and even scouted for potential couple-owners with him, he divorces–and for the wife of one of his franchisees. The contract, which the McDonald brothers signed in good faith that they would be able to uphold the standards of the restaurant they founded, Kroc flagrantly disregards, declaring that they don’t have the legal muscle to enforce their claim. Kroc's fall culminates in a full end-run around the brothers, buying them out and then fleecing them out of their royalties.

Yet intertwined with Kroc’s tragic moral fall is his heroic climb to the top. He overcomes the stifling conservatism of the brothers, whose restaurant employed only a few dozen, to franchise McDonald’s into a company that let thousands, who had been scraping by just barely paying the bills, grow and prosper as franchise owners. Kroc walked into a new McDonald’s not to cries of disdain for his galling deception, but rather to a hero’s honor with the newly employed cheering him triumphant.

It is this juxtaposition that creates the tension of The Founder: we both admire and deplore Ray. If his chicanery were not intermixed with good and if he had not overcome great adversity, we would judge him a terrible man without exemption. Yet greatness complicates our moral vision, and Kroc’s triumph intertwined with tragedy refuses to resolve in a neat verdict. The sentiments of Ray's speech are lifted right from the same cheesy self-help records he played when he was a failing salesman, but has he not ennobled and vindicated them by his success? When we see Ray emblazon "founder" upon his business card and proceed to humiliate the McDonald brothers by running their original restaurant out of business, we see something unjust and wrong, but his empire and the people it serves are no less real.

It is moral all the more striking because the film is so slender, that often the good and evil men do are inseparable.

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