Friday, February 03, 2017

The Founder (John Lee Hancock, 2016)

A biopic on Ray Kroc, not really the founder of McDonald's, promises a cinematic death by bleeding out Significance from its every frame. But The Founder fascinates in a way similar to Todd Haynes' more faithful adaptation of James M. Cain's Mildred Pierce - it's just plain informative. The film's didactic jouissance reaches its apex when Kroc (Michael Keaton), frustrated over his inability to make money from his franchises of the McDonald brothers' (Nick Offerman, ever sexy, and John Carroll Lynch) original Taylorist burger stand in San Bernadino, enlists the help of businessman Harry J. Sonneborn (B. J. Novak) who informs him that he's not in the burger business or the franchise business (or even the business of selling time which is where I thought he was going) but rather, the real estate business. Sonneborn's glance through the ledger, so sexy in its own right, compels Kroc to scarf up land and eventually buy out the McDonald brothers from the restaurant they created. These libidinal economics don't require much personality to make them come alive and here, John Lee Hancock delivers. His direction is as blandly utilitarian as his article-noun titles (The Rookie, The Alamo, The Blind Side, The Founder) and all the better for it.

And yet, some critics are still hankering for characters to care about. In his mixed Chicago Reader review here, J. R. Jones writes: "These business maneuverings are pretty entertaining, but in the end The Founder must stand or fall as a character study." Why?? Damn near every Hollywood film ever is a character study. Why can't it stand or fall as an institution study or a film governed by processes rather than character development or a delirious maximalization of character (e.g., Haynes' Mildred Pierce)? In any event, all we need to know about Kroc is telegraphed in the scene when he goes to the movies and opts to see On The Waterfront instead of Magnificent Obsession. Nuff said.

Still, the character development moments are smartly handled. For all the burgers and fries littering the frame, there are plenty of scenes involving food not served in bags. Kroc's long-neglected wife Ethel (Laura Dern in a thankless role) complains about a heavily salted meal at a VFW and asks her husband for salt at a tense home dinner suggesting an upper class propriety floating above the middle masses first courted and then soon abandoned by the corporate elite. And the supernaturally beautiful Patrick Wilson is on hand as the owner of a fancy supper club from whom Kroc steals his wife (poor guy - even Lena Dunham ditched him on Girls).

My only qualm is that I wish the requisite end titles didn't make us feel sorry for the McDonald brothers who walked away with $1 million each in 1961 (over $8 million in 2017 dollars) while Kroc became a billionaire. Some scenes showing how they survived perfectly well with their "mere" millions would prove a progressive rejoinder to this era of grotesque wealth accumulation.

Suggested sequels:
On the birth of the Filet O' Fish: The Flounder
On the birth of Chicken McNuggets: I Dip You Dip We Dip



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