Sunday, 5 March 2017

The Founder Review

From the first time I saw a trailer for the Founder I was enamoured with the subject matter, but also with the timing of its release for what was going on in the news at the time. Sadly I didn't get to watch the film on my first attempt as the projector malfunctioned after a 30 minute wait reminding me more of Burger King. I was nevertheless still keen to watch this film based on the names Michael Keaton and Nick Offerman alone and so I did. Fair warning as this film is based on true events there will be plot spoilers.

Michael Keaton plays Ray Kroc, a struggling businessmen attempting to sell a milkshake machine that he claims will revolutionise business, but is failing to gain any momentum. As the film begins we are quickly shown that Kroc has to carry this machine around and give the sales pitch to managers of diners and drive-ins who just aren't interested. The film opens with an impassioned speech directly to the camera and we hear versions of it repeated with diminishing enthusiasm. Kroc is painted from the very beginning as a sympathetic character, a man trying to do his job and not succeeding. All the tropes are there, the slightly beaten down weary look, the positive thinking records, the phone conversation with a wife who is not all that supportive. Even down to opening a bottle of wine alone in a dimly lit motel room. Keaton then pulls a hip flask out of his jacket and I shouted Bingo! People have made comparisons to Willy Loman in other reviews but Kroc's vulnerability is shown in a more direct manner minutes into the film and is shown to change as the film progresses. Michael Keaton put on a performance that is endearing initially but turns us sour on Kroc as his head gets bigger. The key thing though is that Keaton is charismatic enough to play a hard nosed and relentless salesman with charm that endures until you consider the real actions that took place in the film. It's staggering to thing that Michael Keaton was considered a non entity in Hollywood until Birdman (2014), yet is so good in his role in this film. It is fair to say that Keaton carries this film with his salesman charm.

Rays luck seems to be about to change when he receives word that a diner in California has ordered six machines, which he immediately assumes to be a mistake. Once he realises it isn't Ray makes the around 1800 mile drive (according to Google) to find the restaurant and witnesses something he has never experienced, fast food and good service eventually referred to as the "speedy system". Kroc is at this point basically desperate, and so when he sees this he goes all out to be part of it. What the film doesn't show is that this wasn't the first food establishment Kroc tried to get into as he had attempted the non-hostile takeover plan before. A lot of his character is revealed through not so subtle hints that sound off alarm bells. One such instance of this is Kroc skimming the contract presented to him going over pages in seconds. This becomes pertinent later on as Ray states that "contracts are like hearts, made to be broken" but you already knew his mindset at the time. The one thing that remains consistent about Ray Kroc from when he is penniless to when he is rich, he always goes for what he wants regardless of who has it and what the moral restrictions are. This means that despite our change in the perception of his character, he never actually changes himself which is a well written development. He is the same man, but we see him differently as events progress.

The McDonald brothers are played by John Carroll Lynch and Nick Offerman who both do brilliantly with what is on the page but portray the brothers very narrowly at times. This is not an issue with Offerman or Lynch but more to do with the films writing which offers an increasingly brief insight
into the two. I especially liked the scene early on where Mac (Lynch) and Dick (Offerman) are telling their story so far to Kroc. The scene is mostly presented through flashbacks that are charming and believable, and they make you like the brothers from the start. One sequence in particular really made me smile as Dick draws the outline for the not yet finished kitchen in chalk on a tennis court has has his staff spend six hours practicing efficient service while he rearranged the imaginary work station to help maximise output. This was unlike anything I have seen before and it felt eccentric but not far fetched. As the film goes on we see less and less of Dick and Mac, and at points they are only there to say no to Kroc's ideas whether good or bad. They remain true to their principles and are unwilling to budge believing that Kroc will have to live with their decisions. In the end the impression we are given is that they were naive and perhaps a little soft in protecting their business and family name but as I said before this is more due to the writing of the script than the mostly warm and sympathetic performances by Offerman and Lynch.

Another thing I liked throughout the film was the music by Carter Burwell. It seems to match Kroc at all times, it is upbeat and energetic when he is and low and dreary when he is also. It picks up for example when Ethel Kroc shows her support for him and has a sense of exploration about it. Kroc is after all expending West to make his fortune so this feels appropriate and brings you along for the ride, making you feel the way Ray feels in any given moment rather than having us passively experience Rays journey. This feeling of sunny optimism is also backed by beautifully coloured scenes, particularly outdoors. The reds and yellows of McDonalds and the sunny blue California skies notable in the early scenes for the film when Kroc is discovering the Brothers' diner are reminiscent to me of Director John Lee Hancock's last film Saving Mr. Banks. (2013), with which there are many similarities with The Founder. What came to mind especially was the scene of Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) giving P.L Travers (Emma Thompson) a tour of Disneyland, as well as many of the exterior shots of the Disney studios. In that film I took this to be a representation of Disney magic brought out by glorifying light and colour, and similarly in The Founder I interpreted its use as shining optimism of its lead character pouring trough the screen.

The score and setting of this film might not be out of place in a western at times which was perhaps helped by the 1950's decor of the film. A great deal of this had to recreated from scratch with McDonalds locations having to be built in car parks and other areas that wouldn't clash with the time
period. This again reminded me of Saving Mr. Banks and the recreations of 1960's Disneyland used in that film. Both are set in a similar time period with the events of The Founder taking place a few years earlier, so Hancock and his set designer on both films Susan Benjamin had great experience in recreating the style. The real life Ray Kroc and Walt Disney knew each other so I liked the subtle connection between the two films here. The film ends with photos and interview clips that help to lend authenticity to the film which is a trick also employed by Hancock in Saving Mr. Banks. While in many ways completely different the two are similar in that Tom Hanks' Walt Disney and Michael Keaton's Ray Kroc both exude charisma and passion for their own quests. They are both pursuing something relentlessly, and they are both strong performances that carry their films, more so in Keaton's case. I'm hoping John Lee Hancock continues this trend and focuses his next project on Col. Sanders or the Michelin Man.

While the McDonalds brand was never going to be shown in any negative light, it is also not pandered to or shoved down the viewers throat. The story is heavily focused on the changing relationship between Kroc and the McDonalds brothers mainly from Kroc's side, and the brand is prominent but is still very much a setting and a historical context above all else. One exception to this is a speech Kroc gives comparing Dicks 'golden arches' design for restaurants to the flag on a courthouse or the spire of Churches, claiming that McDonalds could become the "new American Church". It is important to note the context of this line though as the point Kroc is trying to make a deal and of course he is going to glorify his subject. For those of you scared of clowns don't worry, Ronald makes no appearance either.

In the following days after I saw The Founder I later learned that much of the film was written based on Ray Kroc's own autobiography. Knowing this made everything come together, because while being presented from a third person perspective the film is very much Krocs version of events. Unlike Krocs empire however he himself doesn't escape the film with his reputation unscathed. I noted before that the one thing that doesn't change about Ray is that he relentlessly goes after what he wants regardless of who has it. This is not limited strictly to business but refers to his second wife Joan Smith (Linda Cardellini) who is introduced as the wife of one of Rays franchisees and Ray is enamoured by immediately, like Pepe Le Pew whenever he sees the girl skunk. Her introduction signposts the beginning of a colder more ruthless Ray Kroc, and one that while the same character fundamentally is more driven and will go after what he wants regardless of who it will hurt.

I mentioned the the start of this review that I was interested in the timing of this films release, given that it seemed to coincide with trumps inauguration. I wondered what the films tone would be like in light of this. In reality the script was on the Hollywood blacklist of unmade but worthy projects for a few years, and the films original release date was this past Summer which was moved to January in hopes of Oscar nominations (it received none). The Founder in the end felt like a slightly baffling misstep for our modern times. Today where corporate greed and corruption are more public knowlege than ever, and a certain business tycoon currently holds the keys to the kingdom I had expected something totally different to what The Founder presented. Something a little more biting and judgemental, maybe even an antidote, but what we got was basically an advert for all of the above. Once the film had sunk in I felt like I had watched a shiny happy promotional film where the plot is basically big business over the little guy, which didn't seem appropriate for what is going on in the world these days. If The Founder had a bit more of a satirical edge to it then it would maybe have remedied this but while I enjoyed the presentation and performances I couldn't help but be disappointed by the films message and overall tone. I later discovered that Joel and Ethan Coen were interested in making this film but couldn't due to clashing schedules with Hail, Caesar! (2016), which while I like John Lee Hancock, I can't help but think would have made for a totally different and perhaps better film. The Founder is saccharine, but leaves a bitter taste.


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