Monday, August 7, 2017
The Founder is perhaps the most troubling version of the American dream ever captured in a movie. Its message is clear: Ambition is great, but what really helps is ruthless megalomania. And guess what? You can screw the people who helped you get to the top, and nothing bad will happen to you. There's no such thing as karma, baby! Ray Kroc, founder of the McDonald's Corporation, stole ideas and stepped on toes until he got to the top of the fast food mountain. Maybe you can find some inspiration in the story of a failed 52-year-old salesman who, when it seemed his life had hit a Willy Lomanish skid, talked a couple of goodhearted brothers in California into franchising their friendly little burger restaurant. They reluctantly agreed, and by the time a McDonald's opened in Minnesota, Kroc was taking credit for the entire concept. Burger fumes had gone to his head. By the time he suggested the company could save money by using powdered milk in their shakes, the damage was done. Kroc not only bit the hand that fed him, he put two pickles on it and washed it down with a crap shake.
Kroc had a vision. He imagined McDonald's as a kind of instant Americana in a bag. After World War 2, the country was thriving, and speed was key. Why wait a half hour for your meal? Why not get your sammich in 30 seconds? But Kroc's real passion was for the name: McDonald's. As in 'Old McDonald had a farm.' It sounded as big as the open road, and as sturdy as Eisenhower's jaw. "You couldn't call the place 'Kroc's'," he says. "Its too Slavic." Would he have been so in love with the burgers if the brothers had been named McCarthy, or Sullivan, or Dempsey? Funnily enough, when he first goes to McDonald's to deliver a bunch of milk shake spinners, he doesn't know what to make of it. There are no plates. The stuff comes in a paper sack. But he likes the food - they used real government standard beef in those days, kids, not the mysterious rubber discs they serve now - and he's soon learning the inner workings of the joint. The brothers had created something amazing, a tight little collection of workers who built burgers like they were building Fords. It was, says one brother, like "a burger ballet."
Director John Lee Hancock creates a luscious looking movie. The 1950s automobiles, finned behemoths with gas guzzling V8 engines, are gorgeous (It is strange that none of them need to be washed. Didn't cars get dirty in those days?), as are the long stretches of highway and the clear blue skies, and the billboards that advertise cigs and shaving cream. As Kroc travels the country, we start to feel that our greatest contribution to cinema is not the Western, or the crime flick, or the horror film, but the road movie. America's highways have rarely seemed as beautiful as they do in The Founder. As the brothers explain how they built their restaurant, one might get teary-eyed at how they stuck together, and how they were about to give up when one little boy showed up to buy a burger, the same boy who used to appear in Norman Rockwell paintings and Disney movies about brave dogs. It's mush, but it's great mush. When Kroc enlists his buddies from the country club to help out with his franchising dream, and then fires them because they put fried chicken on the menu, you want to pat Kroc on the back and say "Keep going, buddy! I'm with you."
As Kroc, Michael Keaton continues to impress during this late stretch of his career. He's a venal salesman, a guy who talks to mirrors and can pitch a line of bull, and though we may root for him at first, he eventually becomes the villain of the piece. If this was fiction, he'd get his comeuppance. But it's not, so he ends up rubbing elbows with Ronald Reagan. He insists that he's not a bad person, merely ambitious, with big ideas. He even trades in his scowling wife (Laura Dern) for the much saucier spouse (Linda Cardilini) of a business associate. He'll take another man's business, and another man's wife, all because of, you know, ambition. And he'll live happily ever after, unlike us less ambitious plebeians. The movie drags in the second half, when we get the idea that Kroc can't be stopped. It's also disappointing that there's no mention of Ronald McDonald or Mayor McCheese. What keeps it interesting is Keaton, as well as Nick Offerman, who plays the pragmatic Dick McDonald, and John Carroll Lynch as Mac, the more jovial of the brothers. Sadly, I kept thinking of the McDonald's in my area. The shake machine never works, the place is a friggin' pigsty, and last year a junkie was caught shooting up in the restroom. What would Kroc think?