More noise than signal

The Founder

Republished from the show notes of my other site, Fuds on Film.

It was a clever move to minimise the name “McDonalds” on the promo material for this, encumbered as it is with its own baggage and prejudice. But, for a little while longer at least, it is with living memory that the burger behemoth was not the globe bestriding exemplar of all that is good and bad about neoliberal capitalism, but a simple burger stand out California way ran by Dick and Mac McDonald, played here by Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch respectively.

I say simple, as that’s how it seems from our decadent modernity, but back in the fifties the tradition of the great American Diner was not really all that great, as hard-grafting travelling salesman Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton) knew from bitter first hand experience. The carhops were overworked, the food wasn’t well prepared, assuming you were lucky enough to get what you ordered. So, while on the road hawking a more efficient milkshake machine, he’s stunned to come across the diner model that the McDonalds have innovated.

It’s largely as McDonald’s is these days, although even more streamlined, offering only a very few items which can then be made to a consistent standard and quality, as opposed to diners that offered a wide selection of badly done food. Greatly impressed, he buttonholes the McDonalds in order to get their story then insists on shoehorning himself into their operations in order to franchise their idea across the USA.

They’d tried that idea before with sub-optimal results, as it became impossible to maintain standards, and the stress of attempting to put Mac into the hospital. Ray swears things will be different this time. Which, I suppose, is one thing that he said that was truthful.

We follow Ray in his attempts to pitch an initially unreceptive world about this idea before finding a few people willing to sign up, one of whom being Patrick Wilson’s Rollie Smith, although it’s his wife Joan (Linda Cardellini) that Ray’s really more interested in. This will eventually become a problem for Ray’s long-ignored wife (Laura Dern).

As the idea catches on, and more and more franchisees sign up with Ray, he starts to want far more influence and control than the iron-clad contract with the McDonald’s allow, and soon starts butting heads with them, and making more money by some side deals relating to the property the restaurants are built on that are against the spirit, if not the letter, of the deal.

Things eventually come to a head, as Ray pushes ever more strongly against the McDonalds control before outright defying them, secure in the knowledge that having made far more money off the McDonald’s idea than they themselves have, any possible lawsuit for breech of contract could be lawyer-ed out until the McDonalds run out of money.

So reluctantly, the McDonalds give up their idea, and their name, for a mere fraction of what it’s worth to what’s become a greedy, unscrupulous, uncaring corporate monolith. Which is largely infuriating because intitially, Ray doesn’t seem all that bad.

Now, that’s not to minimise the way Ray’s exceedingly distant relationship with his wife, which is a pretty shabby byproduct of his line of work, but not actively hateful. But the story of The Founder, despite how intertwined it necessarily is with the McDonald’s brothers, in truth has very little to do with them, and almost all to do with the slide of Ray Kroc from somewhat hapless, hard-working, almost stereotypical salesman to the embodiment of the over-reaching corporate mentality that is either everything that is great or is fundamentally broken about neo-liberal capitalism, depending on where you fall on the Lenin – Ayn Rand spectrum.

Which is a very interesting framing device, but it’s Michael Keaton who knocks this out of the park with a tremendous performance that does a bag-up job of capturing Ray’s changing attitudes as he goes from underdog to overdog. Offerman and Carroll Lynch play well the roles that this dramatisation requires, both being so, well, nice, that when Ray starts hard-charging them it seems like he’s kicking puppies.

How realistic are these portrayals? I can’t really say, but I’d be willing to bet “not hugely”, and there’s most likely a great deal more complexity in the dealings between the parties than is represented here, and there’s some good reasons for Kroc to feel aggrieved over his treatment that aren’t explored quite as fully as they should be if this was aiming to be fair and balanced. But I’m not really looking for a legal briefing, and as a drama it all works very well indeed.

Even if you don’t care a whit for the wrangling of the rights to McDonalds, this is well worth watching purely on the basis of Keaton’s performance. It’s one of the rare films that left me infuriated enough that I very much wished to reach through the screen and throttle the lead character. And that’s got to count for something, I suppose. Well worth seeking out and adding to your diet.