Proofread by Jon Scott
I’ve always taken a very backwards-facing seat when it comes to the juggernaut industry of fast food. As a child I was addicted to the stuff; mostly for that cheap lump of plastic for which a garish and slightly terrifying clown insisted I complete a collection. I can’t say I’m exactly fond of the concept nowadays – I’ve learnt to cook for myself since those heady years of childhood and generally prefer my own culinary skills to an underpaid teenager’s.
However, whichever way you look at it, the fast food empire is a modern stroke of genius; one of the major cogs in the world’s economy, a pounding, overstocked, overfilled race of company ego battling. It is, indeed, one of the most horrifically intelligent and yet gloriously stupid empires of our age; built for man’s own consumption, greed, and increasingly hectic schedule. Not to mention chavvy families trying to work out which of their six embarrassingly named children wanted the chicken nuggets…
I’ve often been fascinated by the world’s corporate food kingdoms, and one of the most globally recognisable is that wondrous model of cholesterol-raising miscreants at McDonalds. Until recently, I had never really heard of Ray Kroc or the McDonald’s Brothers, or even bothered to look up the company’s history, but John Lee Hancock‘s latest cinematic outing renders these three men back into surprisingly tangible form, and a really rather bleak tale of off-handed, unpleasant commercialism. With a smiling face and guaranteed success…
It’s 1954, and Ray Kroc (Keaton) is in a bad place. His latest employment as a somewhat second-rate salesman in Multi-mixer-milkshake-machines is floundering, and his reputation as a hare-brained, get-rich sort has set him up in tension with his business associates, his wife and his increasingly dishevelled suits.
All is looking bad for our businesschum, only for him to receive an order for six (then eight) of his units – the largest order ever from one location – from Richard ‘Dick’ and Maurice ‘Mac’ McDonald. Both of these are played in fine contrasts by Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch. Richard is an obsessive over numbers and efficiency, the other is the family heart – a laid back, cuddly bear of a man. Instantly dumbfounded, he takes a long drive to San Bernardino to find out what sort of restaurant needs to make thirty milkshakes at once, only to find an automated kitchen with an efficient, clean and continuously functioning burger production line – the first ever truly ‘fast food’ restaurant.
After taking them to dinner to learn their history, he starts schmoozing them into a franchise deal. The brothers are reluctant, Kroc is persistent, and, all in all, the dastardly tale of contracts, corporations and franchisees begins to form, as Ray becomes increasingly insufferable and relentless, and the brothers increasingly irritated.
Something’s got to give, and if you’re naive enough to expect a happy ending, you’re probably a marketing executive. Oh yes, friends… Despite its impressions towards a tale of success, The Founder may be one the bleakest, most depressing and shamelessly middle-seated films I’ve seen.
Quite frankly, I’ve no idea how the legal matter of this film was even agreed upon. It’s not so much that it’s damaging to McDonalds as a company, more surprisingly strait-laced and unflinching. It doesn’t demonise anybody, or really take interest in the food. It presents McDonalds as an oddity of its time, a mark of confusing progress and mathematical self study. It doesn’t make the company inspiring, or look pleasant, or even look particularly efficient. It presents the underbelly of crude contractual fleecing of two relatively innocent, albeit very intelligent, restaurateurs. It pulls out the carpet from decades of PR talk. And, unflinchingly, it looks you straight in the eyes and says there really is no ‘happy’ ending.
This is Michael Keaton – one of my favourite actors, bar none – at his slimiest, sleaziest and yet most convincing. Almost every step he takes as Ray Kroc is a form of manipulation, a clamouring grab at a last-ditch get-rich-quick scheme. His family is shunned in favour of his business, and his passions seem confused between his own self-glorification, status, money, customer service, brand identity and success. Despite this, he’s never quite odious. He’s too easy to like – too easy to fall in love with. Too easy to believe in. Which is an all too important skill for a corporate businessman.
It’s a surprisingly likeable look into the life of…well, a sleaze. A man who starts off pleasant enough, goes wrong, ruins lives and, in the process – well, wins everything he wanted. It makes no moral judgement as a film; you can celebrate it or hate it. Unfortunately, it’s a very real and very hard-hitting glimpse into how business works.
In many ways this line of origin films for household brands is becoming, I feel, increasingly important and relevant to the world of 21st century cinemas. These tales are, whether for better or worse, important ones – fables alluding to our modern ways of life. I personally want to see more, and, I hope, in similar terms – no illusions, no pleasantries, no sympathy – just a firm story teaching us where our luxuries have come from. There must be an enormous selection of stories to choose from.
The thing is, this could have so easily been advertisement or a scorn campaign, for or against McDonalds. It did neither. The fact it’s McDonalds is only a conclusion to a good story; there’s no winks as to how ‘massive’ it could be, no cheeky references to clowns or big macs. There’s no attempt at dumb satire or obvious pop culture references. It’s absorbing. An utterly enthralling tale of business that just so happens to lead into one of the world’s most powerful companies.
It’s smart, it’s satisfying, it’s got one of Hollywood’s true modern greats and it doesn’t sit back and let nostalgia or rose tinting take focus. It feels real – and that, above all else, is what I’d hope for from a real-life drama.
Superb. Simply superb. Why is Keaton only Oscar nominated? The world may never get answers…
Directed by John Lee Hancock.
Written by Robert D. Siegel.
John Carroll Lynch
Released wide on January 20th 2017.