Look, I get it: Trump hasn’t even taken office yet (enjoy the last couple of days!) and we’re all already tired of the “this movie/book/show/work of art is totally, accidentally about Donald Trump” construct. I’ve written those pieces; we’ve all written them. It’s easy to dismiss them as a lazy way of sifting contemporary art through contemporary politics, or on the other hand, emphasize the value that arises in understanding the kind of cultural forces that could lead to such a candidate, campaign, and election.
But the debate becomes moot when you come across a movie like The Founder, which plods into the theater (on the day of Twitler’s inauguration, no less), parks itself in the seat next to you, and dares you not to filter it through the orange lens.
The explicit subject, however, is Ray Kroc, the mastermind behind the franchising of McDonald’s, played by Michael Keaton as part visionary, part huckster, and part swindler. We meet him in 1954, as he’s tooling around the Midwest selling (or, more accurately, failing to sell) milkshake machines. But a big order finally comes in, from a hamburger stand out in San Bernardino, California – an order so abnormally big that Kroc stretches his map across the car hood, jumps on the highway, and checks out this “McDonald’s” for himself.
The line runs through the parking lot, but it moves like a bullet, and the burgers are tasty. He meets the owners, “Mac” MacDonald (John Carroll Lynch) and his brother Dick (Nick Offerman), and they show him the assembly-line kitchen. Kroc sees efficiency, he sees satisfaction… and he sees green. He pleads with the brothers to let him franchise their operation. “Do it for your country,” he implores them. “McDonald’s can be the new American church.”
In many ways, he achieved that – but in the process, he screwed the McDonald brothers, squeezing them out of the company entirely, literally taking their name and erasing their story. For Kroc, it wasn’t enough to sell what someone else created; he had to be the all-purpose genius, and before long, he’s telling people “I call ‘em the golden arches” and “I started it in 1954” and dubbing his first franchise location “McDonald’s #1.”
The screenplay by Robert D. Siegel charts Kroc’s progression from salesman to sonofabitch, which makes the selection of John Lee Hancock as director more than a little puzzling; Siegel’s two previous scripts of note, Big Fan and The Wrestler, were unsparing portraits of desperation, but Hancock’s efforts have included the buff-shined Walt Disney propaganda piece Saving Mr. Banks and The Blind Side, which somehow achieves the feat of being both seemingly unaware of its own racism, and utterly apologetic about it. In other words, this isn’t a guy who does nuanced portraiture all that well, and much of The Founder – particularly its first hour – needs a tonal steady hand that Hancock seems unable to provide. Instead, he pads with a lot of highway driving shots (because America!) and scores scenes of families enjoying their McDonald’s with strumming, gentle guitars (because capitalism!). And his direction is often painfully literal – never more glaringly than after B.J. Novak appears as a smooth operator who explains to Kroc that the real money can be made not by franchising the restaurants but by owning the land they’re on, after which Hancock cuts to a slow-motion shot of a hand grabbing a fistful of dirt. Subtle!
But much of The Founder works. Keaton is solid, if occasionally too mannered; his best roles tend to be those that require a fast talker and a faster thinker, and he gets plenty of opportunities here to do both. Linda Cardellini has some lovely moments as the franchisee’s wife who gets his oil boiling (she gets far more to do than poor Laura Dern, who’s stuck in the thankless role of his first wife, seen either as a nag or an expositional mouthpiece). And the highlight of the film is the two-act worked up by Lynch and Offerman, who convey sense of honor in their work and loyalty to each other, both of which get them run over like roadkill. Lynch, in particular, has a moment near the end where he really looks at Kroc, and Hancock thankfully holds for a couple of extra beats so we can take in the sadness in this man’s eyes as he regards the monster he helped make.
The question is how much of it was already there, and why it takes the movie so long to see him that way – why we spend so much of the running time admiring his pluckiness and can-do spirit, the risk he takes when he puts his own home on the line, etc. After all, we know from the opening frames he’s a snake-oil salesman, from his first direct-to-camera pitch, tirelessly rehearsed yet meant to sound off the cuff, as he promises his mark, “You’ll be sellin’ more of these sons of bitches than you can shake a stick at,” with a quick bad-boy look-around and lean in on the profanity (“locker room talk”), and then flattering the bumpkin he’s trying to fleece (“I love the poorly educated”). And then later, when Mac asks, reasonably, “What’d you ever come up with?” he responds with the only way of looking at the world he knows: “I came up with the concept of winning.” (“We’re gonna win so much you may even get tired of winning.”)
Would any of The Founder resonate if the vote hadn’t gone the way it did in November, or if we hadn’t witnessed the horrifying campaign that got us there? It’s impossible to tell. But right now, on the cusp of this scary political moment, it’s a film that at least occasionally seems to understand the drive and mindset of the man to whom we’ve inexplicably tossed the keys of the country. And by the picture’s end, as Ray Kroc checks himself out in his tux, on his way to an important event, it’s not hard to see Trump looking at himself in the mirror Friday morning in the same way – nor is it hard to imagine that, much like Kroc, the hesitation he feels is fleeting at best.
The Founder is out Friday in wide release.