Another Franchise Movie
Your career progression used to be fairly straightforward as a Hollywood movie star, up until relatively recently anyway. You started off doing small films, maybe genre pieces, and gradually worked your way up until your name was over the title and you were suddenly a serious performer to be reckoned with, doing major films for mainstream audiences. Things are a bit different these days, of course, because (as I have noted in the past) the main career benefit an actor receives for winning an acting Oscar these days is to almost instantly be offered a leading role in a knockabout special effects movie. Recent beneficiaries of this include Felicity Jones (recently seen in a Dan Brown adaptation and a stellar conflict franchise installment) and Brie Larson (soon to be seen in the new King Kong film and also playing Captain Marvel for, um, Marvel Studios).
Even older performers can benefit from this effect, with occasionally surreal consequences: Michael Keaton, for instance, has been an actor in demand since he made Birdman (a film which itself might appear to be satirising the current trend for serious actors to appear in superhero movies), but someone somewhere is surely having a laugh – Keaton's big film this year is set to be Spider-Man: Homecoming, in which he plays the Vulture, a character who is basically a… well, work it out for yourselves. Still, at least the fellow seems to be making the most of his current popularity, for he was not half bad in Spotlight last year, nor is his performance in John Lee Hancock's The Founder anything less than impressive.
Keaton plays Ray Kroc, a struggling fifty-something salesman in the US. The year is 1954, and Kroc is somewhat sick of the low quality of the restaurants he constantly encounters in his line of work. Then he encounters the curious case of a small family-run restaurant in San Bernardino, California, which offers superb service and fantastic food in a family-friendly environment. Kroc instantly sees the potential for this business model to be duplicated across the country – across the world, even – and makes his pitch to the owners. They are a pair of brothers, and their names are Maurice and Richard McDonald (played by John Carroll Lynch and Nick Offerman). But the brothers are dubious, not to mention the banks and nearly everyone else who hears of Kroc's scheme – a chain of burger restaurants all called McDonald's? What are the chances of that happening?
Hancock's last movie was Saving Mr Banks, which was a classy piece of work somewhat compromised by the fact it was clearly in part a brazen advertisement for the Disney Corporation, and my first thought upon hearing about The Founder was that something similar might be in the works here – monster corporations with $37 billion in assets are not usually in the habit of letting people make unflattering movies about them, after all. Like many people I am instinctively suspicious of McDonald's, mainly because of the relentless attempts to brand the chain as innately wholesome and fun (not that this stopped me eating there at least once a week when I lived in Japan). The last thing the world needs, I would argue, is a two-hour-long commercial for McDonald's – this movie was made on a $7 million budget, which second-for-second may possibly be less than some actual McDonald's commercials.
Nevertheless, one thing the film makes clear is the sheer impact that McDonald's has had on the way we lead our lives today, even if Thomas Friedman's theory of McDonald's-based international relations (the idea that no two countries with a branch of McDonald's have ever gone to war with each other) has turned to be not strictly true. McDonald's may not be important in the way that philosophy or music or literature is important, but it is at least significant and worthy of attention.
And, as it turns out, the film isn't about McDonalds as an entity as much as it is about Ray Kroc as an individual. Quite how relevant the story of a ruthless property developer who rises to astonishing power and wealth relatively late in life is to the world today, I leave to you to decide, but Keaton is never less than magnetic in the role – which is just as well, as this is by no means a hagiography. The title of the film itself is ironic – Kroc styles himself as the founder of McDonald's, but is of course nothing of the sort – and while Kroc is initially a relatively sympathetic underdog, as the story progresses he becomes a considerably more ambiguous figure. The conclusion of the film deals with some breathtakingly ruthless manoeuvres carried out by Kroc against some sympathetic characters, by which point it is clear his success has brought out some hidden streak of monstrousness in his character.
Given this is the case, there's no question of the film being nothing more than an advert for a fast food chain, even if at one point a parallel is specifically drawn between branches of McDonald's and churches. This kind of ambiguity persists throughout the film – is Kroc an American hero or villain? Is his corporation a success story to be emulated, or just another example of capitalism gone berserk? – which in the same way can't seem to make up its mind as to whether it's a quirky indie comedy-drama or a major mainstream release.
Nevertheless, The Founder is a thoroughly engaging and entertaining film that sheds some light on things that it never occurred to me that I didn't know. The narrative is fascinating, but the story is really given life and energy by the performances – primarily Keaton, of course, but he's given tremendous support by Nick Offerman, and also Laura Dern as his long-suffering wife. But this is a film with few obvious weaknesses, even if some may be put off by the subject matter. Some may find its refusal to take sides simply annoying, while to others they may be key to its appeal – but for me, this is a fascinating story, told superbly. This is a very good movie.