Archive for February, 2017

February 3, 2017

#124) Movie review: “The Founder”

founder1It’s almost too easy, right? A ruthless tycoon screws two honest, hard-working brothers out of their idea and makes billions selling food that causes obesity and other health problems. I mean, come on, this guy makes Vader look like an Eagle Scout. The script practically writes itself!

Not so fast.  “The Founder”, directed by John Lee Hancock, written by Robert Siegel and starring Michael Keaton as McDonald’s CEO Ray Kroc, isn’t a character assassination. Nor does it present its subject as a charismatic anti-hero a la “The Social Network.” The film’s restraint – criticized by some as “wishy-washy” and “as bland as the burgers the businessman hawked” – is in fact its strength.

We already know what happens and there are few surprises en route. The trusting, values-driven McDonald brothers (John Carroll Lynch as Mac and Nick Offerman as Dick) don’t have any more of chance against Kroc than Kroc’s loyal but sullen wife Ethel (Laura Dern) has against Joan (Linda Cardellini), the young, forward-thinking blonde whom he meets on a business trip. The film’s ending seems abrupt but it’s only because ultimately there’s not much to add: Kroc died uneventfully in 1984, never having experienced consequences for his business tactics.

“The Founder” works by staying out of the audience’s way, resisting the urge to score obvious points. There is no blistering indictment of Kroc’s actions, the unhealthy product he sold or employee wages. The period details are accurate without calling attention to themselves. The recognizable but not ubiquitous cast don’t treat their roles as platforms to make statements. The script is not too witty for the subject matter (sorry, Aaron Sorkin) and the dialogue is realistic. There is one clever exchange between the brothers but it’s subtle enough that most viewers will miss it and those who catch it will smile knowingly and appreciate that this touch of symbolism remains just that: a touch.

What it adds up to is that the viewers are given a clean slate on which to draw their own conclusions. Was Kroc an opportunist who wasn’t able to contain his excitement when he saw a chance to escape years of mediocrity or was he a true villain? Did Kroc actually want to give the McDonald Brothers a fair shake in the beginning but acted selfishly and impulsively when his vision outgrew theirs, or was he out to swindle them all along? Was he a genius or simply in the right place at the right time? Some film goers won’t want to give Kroc the benefit of the doubt, but Hancock and Keaton make sure he receives a fair trial. We see Kroc drinking regularly but not excessively. His late night talks with Joan appear illicit at first but are strictly corporate. He hides his financial difficulties from Ethel, but the film knows better than to expect pearl clutching: no, not everyone is 100% transparent about money with their spouse.

Some may see the movie’s lack of an obvious moral stance as an attempt to pander both to Middle America and the coasts; others may be disappointed that more heads don’t roll. On the other hand, among blockbusters and issue-oriented pictures, a no-frills $7 million film that allows the audience to ask and answer their own questions also just might have a place.