Monday 5 December 2016

The Founder (2016) - Movie Review
It’s a pretty safe bet to say that McDonald’s is very popular. In fact, it may be one of the single most powerful brands in the history of commerce. Were it not that advertising and marketing is as ubiquitous as it is, I reckon that McDonald’s the world over could completely stop advertising on screen and print and still be in business; name a single fast food chain with a logo as recognisable as the golden arches. Making a film about how the company went from a single location to a global powerhouse is pretty much a no-brainer by this point... but given how wide the company’s influence is, I wouldn’t be surprised if there was some "corporate oversight" when it comes to how the characters are shown here. Conspiracy theories for the win.

The plot: Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton), a down-on-his-luck milkshake mixer salesman, gets a sizeable order for a diner in San Bernadino, California, run by brothers Dick (Nick Offerman) and Mac (John Carroll Lynch) McDonald. Thoroughly impressed by their business strategies and unique selling point of the restaurant, he ends convincing them to let him franchise the idea nationwide. However, as the brand begins to spread, it seems that Ray’s ambitions may be far bigger than either of the brothers could have anticipated.

The cast here is pretty good overall. Keaton will always be awesome and he manages to give a person who, on paper, should be a slimy and money-grubbing capitalist into more of an optimistic dreamer… and yet, doesn’t make it come across as airbrushed to any obvious degree. Laura Dern as his wife, while having a couple of nice moments, is mainly just a character by the definition of being the main’s wife; flat is being generous. Offerman works really well as the brains behind the idea of McDonald’s, keeping his inevitable betrayal from entering the realms of melodrama, while Lynch serves as the voice of the idea, at once racked with stress and more than capable of roaring at people who wrong him. Patrick Wilson and B. J. Novak both offer nice portrayals of two of Ray’s key business associates, and Linda Cardellini makes for a very welcoming presence along the same lines.

Considering how this shares a director with Saving Mr. Banks and a writer with Dreamworks’ Turbo, this very easily could have gone down the route of easy moralising and just painted Ray as the out-and-out villain. Or it could have shown him as the underdog and the McDonald brothers as the selfish creators who didn’t know of the raw potential of their idea. Well, the film does all and none of these as it is a surprisingly even portrayal of both Ray and the brothers, showing their respective traits and flaws in equal measure.

Dick is a major perfectionist, as shown through how much work went into getting the outlay of the restaurant exactly right, but also somewhat lacking in ambition in his own right and not willing to accept how much the rest of the world could use an idea like his. Mac does quite a bit of talking for his brother, as shown when he and Dick first explained the concept of McDonald’s to Ray, but he can also be extremely passive once the stress starts really getting to him. Ray, in no uncertain terms, isn’t the best of salesmen; in fact, he is pretty awful at pitching to prospective customers. However, when he latches onto an idea he genuinely believes in, and there is no doubt that he is in love with the McDonalds’ unique selling point, he is tremendously ambitious and willing to make the sacrifices necessary to see it through, for good and for bad.

Not only are the characters (the main three, at least) well-realised but the film also manages to do a capital job at conveying the very idea behind McDonald’s. This may seem like a no-brainer but, through showing what their beginning competition was, we get a neat little time capsule of why exactly this concept was so innovative, as well as why so many companies to follow would use the same formula. The idea of getting your food within thirty seconds of ordering is quite remarkable considering the limitations of the time. Hell, it’s remarkable now, if you’ve ever ordered at a McDonald’s nowadays. Actually, that disconnect between what McDonalds was under the brothers’ management and what it has become plays into a fair bit of the film as well, even including a few jokes foreshadowing how the company operates nowadays. “Milkshakes without milk? What’s next, frozen French fries?” Have to admit, as someone who once manned the deep fryer in one of these establishments, I got a real chuckle out of that one.

However, once the film starts to really kick off in showing Ray go from associate to “founder”, it begins to falter for the simple reason that it gets into the usual 'This is the American Dream' style of commentary that isn’t exactly the most enthralling in the world. Credit where it’s due that said commentary is well delivered through characters and a story that are honestly more morally complex than this kind of vicious corporate takeover story would normally be afforded. While it may seem easy to take sides, there are enough reasons to support either of them or neither. Unfortunately, even that brings its own issues into the production as, much like Tallulah, that complexity makes it difficult to discern how much we should sympathise with these characters. And once again, that kind of impedes on the ability to enjoy this work because, when a hefty amount of the drama is made from Ray’s rise to power, the emotion we’re supposed to feel for him is too murky to latch onto.

All in all, this is a decent effort. The acting is solid and the writing shows a lot of effort put into highlighting why this idea would be worth stealing in the first place, but at the same time, its insistence on moral ambiguity makes the drama harder than it should be to buy into. It's an okay watch if you want to learn about the popular depiction of the story, but it definitely could have been better.

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