Friday 17 February 2017

Where's the beef?: "The Founder"

The latest item off cinema's conveyor-belt of business stories - which seems to have gone into overdrive the closer America's Business President™ got to the White House - would appear far likelier to coincide with an audience's tastes and interests than all those movies about the fluctuations of the stock market in the wake of the 2008 crash, or any project involving Matthew McConaughey overseeing the day-to-day operations of a South Asian goldmine. Indeed, most viewers watching The Founder in their friendly neighborhood megaplex will be doing so approximately ten minutes' walk from the phenomenon-cum-juggernaut whose origins it describes, for John Lee Hancock's film concerns the making of McDonald's, and the breaking of the brothers who actually gave that name to popular culture.

It opens in 1954, where we find travelling salesman Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton) having no particular luck attempting to shift industrial kitchenware from the boot of his car. His world - our world - changes when an order for half-a-dozen milkshake mixers comes in from the San Bernardino base of overstretched pattyslingers Mac and Dick McDonald (John Carroll Lynch and Nick Offerman). After consulting the map, Kroc heads West to achieve his destiny and claim his fortune - by seizing upon the McDonalds' establishment as the basis for a nationwide franchise, replacing the dairy in the shakes with powder, while bulking out the ideology. It was Kroc who hit upon the idea of the Golden Arches, and the notion of referring to both your workforce and customer base as "family" - a touch ironic, given his screwing-over of Mac and Dick, and the negligence he displayed towards then-wife Ethel.

This, then, is the point at which brotherhood ceded to rampant individualism, product to branding, and capitalism - the simple exchange of money for goods - to corporate capitalism, with its insistence on suppressing costs, inflating profits and crushing the opposition. We thus await a film as toothy as its leading man, one that might do for fast food what, say, The Social Network did for Facebook... and yet The Founder winds up only halfway towards where it seemed to be heading. The casting of Keaton, certainly, is one acknowledgement that Ray Kroc was a bit of an oddball: here is another of history's wheedling white guys, alone in hotel rooms, pushing themselves on towards glory to the accompaniment of dubious motivational recordings. As Ethel (Laura Dern, trailing Enlightened wokeness) asks when her hubby finally returns home one night, "When's enough going to be enough for you?" "Probably never," comes the response, as fast and unnourishing as the food.

This Kroc is another of America's weirdo puritans, angrily confronting those franchise owners who deign to deviate from the established McMenu, tutting and fussing around those bad crowds of rock 'n' roll-loving teenagers who went against his quasi-evangelical belief that the Golden Arches should serve as a beacon for right-thinking families. (Somewhere in that pleasingly ambiguous title - sourced from the job title on Kroc's business cards - there are echoes of 2012's The Master.) The pity is that this script somehow swerved David Fincher or Paul Thomas Anderson's in-trays - or that these generally critical filmmakers felt they'd had their fill of dealing with litigious organisations. Hancock is a solid, skilled storyteller - he did the persuasive baseball fable The Rookie in his guise as a Disney company man - and he retains a sharp eye both for the flatter stretches of the American landscape, and the illumination these Golden Arches cast: you can't help but be struck by the eerie, angular Hopper beauty of the franchise's first outlets, against which the soft pastels, chummy adspeak and blocked toilets of today's McDonalds appear more resistible still.

Yet he's never been one to upset the applecart, or send back the molten apple pie: he prefers to blow gently on the material until it's cooled for slightly easier consumption. (You feel the wafting of lawyers' notes being passed back-and-forth behind the camera.) The screenplay - by Robert Siegel, who penned the appreciably salty The Wrestler - doesn't lack for savage ironies (witness Dick's rebuttal of Kroc's sharking: "I'll have no part of such commercialism. It's not McDonald's"), but Hancock hurries cautiously past them; he breaks up the fervent talk about growth with a piano number ("Pennies from Heaven", naturally), and generally plays the negotiation of sums - of which there is perhaps a touch too much, come the second half - for sunny, cutesy comedy. At several points, you sense the film backing off entirely, unwilling as it is to alienate or implicate that large demographic (pardon the pun) who don't much care what they're shovelling in their mouths, nor really where it came from.

The time is surely right for a rigorous examination of modern corporate practice, and the all-consuming monsters it spawns, but stretches of The Founder inadvertently resemble adverts for post-film dining (Patrick Wilson and Linda Cardellini at their most handsome - which is pretty damn handsome - whipping up a non-dairy milkshake) or TED talks for wannabe Trumps (enter B.J. Novak as the lawyer advising Kroc that the real money resides not in shilling burgers, but in owning the land on which those burgers are grilled). Absent from the frame is any real indication of the litter and obesity to come, or anything of Danny Baker's description of the average McDonald's as "a hospital waiting room that just happens to sell food". (In short, nothing of this.) The Hancock version is handsomely produced, capably performed, and benefits substantially from Keaton's snake-oil smarts in the lead role; it'll fill a gap in anticipation of your next Quarter Pounder. But imagine the shaded Fincher version, or the freewheeling Anderson version, and the belly truly begins to rumble.

The Founder opens in cinemas nationwide today.       

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