Updated: May 18, 2021
*TLDR* - THE SHEER AMOUNT OF DIRECTORIAL COMPETENCE IN THE FOUNDER IS UNMISSABLE. THE PACE AND EXECUTION IS SIMPLY ABOVE THE CUT FOR THE GENRE. IT'S BUILT ON A CONCEPT THAT HAS LITTLE CINEMATIC APPEAL, BUT THERE-IN LIES IT'S CHARM. A CHALLENGE OF, AND TESTAMENT TO, OVERCOMING THE MEDIUM.
As much as I am preemptively defending this movie, I genuinely think it stands out, and I really do like it. There are people who have already decided they won't enjoy this movie simply because of a cynical and chastising prejudice of a docu-movie on McDonald's origins, and... That's fair. I completely understand the hesitance, but The Founder isn't *just* an example of a good movie in a one-trick genre; It's a great general viewing experience with some critically positive elements.
If you figured this movie was just a cash grab suck-up to the world's largest restaurant chain though, you'd be sorely mistaken. It has an intriguing focal point of respecting and admonishing the ambitions of Ray Kroc (McDonald's Founder) all with a startling degree of sensible digestibility. This isn't a David Lynch enigma-as-art film. It isn't a visual and narrative spectacle of the bizarre or otherworldly. It's a rather mundane and realistic look at a true story, and it's not meant to confuse you or have a ham-fisted message. We all know the end of this story. We all know McDonald's succeeds. The Founder doesn't need to satisfy your will for an ironic, counter-culture shock or brazen display of artistry. It does what it sets out to do. It shares a vulnerable story, respecting your intelligence, and presents it with a competent execution of screenplay and cinematography. It isn't above itself, and I admire that in a genre where blatant bias and resorting to cheap, flashy, sensational "headline as article" laziness is the name of the game.
Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton) is a down-on-his-luck but optimistic 1954's salesman trying his best to sell his latest bulk kitchenware items. His wife (Laura Dern) is a sullen, class-conscious, homebody with dreams of her husband working less and becoming better equipped to home life with her, and attending her country-club outings. Keaton becomes disillusioned by his wife's lack of support as well as his own perceptions of his waning success. He receives a call about a suspiciously high-volume sale going out to the McDonald brothers (Nick Offerman & John Carroll Lynch) in Southern California. He takes this opportunity to visit them, and their business, and is quickly and completely consumed by the desire to be a part of the McDonald's restaurant business, ultimately landing him the opportunity of a lifetime as their franchising manager. His aspirations outgrow his simple hardworking nature, and lead him down a rabbit-hole of grandeur, deception, and cut-throat business tactics. What follows is a genuinely dichotomous profile exploration of a man capable of great things, who uses his talents and ambition to overstep his partners integrity, will, and desires of maintaining their small family business. This process isn't all schemes and subterfuge, however. He earns a genuine and deserved affection of hardworking peers, and even finds a more suitable romantic partner (Linda Cardellini) through shared passion and positive attitude. The myriad of complicated ethics of Keaton's actions culminate into a final solution; A new colleague overhears Keaton's grind, and develops a loophole in Keaton's contract, where-in he establishes a property management company with exclusive rights for the booming brand's franchisee supply. Keaton eventually outpaces the brothers financially, and breaks contract, threatening to drown them in legal costs if they ever decide to sue. Keaton's success is emblematic of a permanent shift in his life, disengaged from his sorry, meager past which is completely paralleled by the brothers loss of identity and self-respect.
Wow, I hate this trailer... It doesn't match the tone of the film at all. Please take my word that this queasy, feel-good, quip-fest vibe is not representative of the final product.
The themes of ethics vs success, persistence over idealism, and integrity impeding results are some of the many haphazardly reflected quandaries assessed in this film. I say haphazardly because it's not a cut and dry interpretation, and it's not meant to be extrapolated to a broader sense. This is an isolated story about one man, and I think the director did a fantastic job of keeping the story grounded and displaying all the qualities that led to the success of Ray Kroc, and not just the biased "rich man bad" routine.
This movie is not really concerned with painting with too broad a brush. It's nice to watch something where things are presented with such an honest, nuanced perspective. The McDonald brothers could have been presented as infallible victims, and for the most part, they are clearly being taken advantage of, and are victimized, absolutely. BUT, they are also presented appropriately as enemies of change and progress. Kroc reviles their disservice to America by not expanding their reach and ideas, and by being as successful as he was, ultimately proves that this depiction of McDonalds's importance to the country, and beyond that, the world, was correct. Above this however, the movie does a great job of displaying the negatives of Krocs ambition as well, showing the pain and suffering he caused the McDonald brothers, his ex-wife, his friends, and even his colleagues. Some of which are offscreen like, presumably, Cardellini's now ex-husband as Kroc uses his fortune and charm to woo a married woman.
It's a delicate balance.
A bold approach to a docu-movie to have these specific and not necessarily easily digestible ethical portrayals. There's a serious dedication to presenting information appropriately and with well-intentioned moral anonymity. There is almost no framing device for you to latch onto except a basic retelling of the facts. It's hard to put into words, but this level of neutrality is essential for investment. Far too often, a movie like this will spell it all out for you, and not respect your ability to think critically. The Founder presents this, while also being extremely approachable and as I mentioned earlier: sensibly digestible. Not easy; Sensible.
I would however like to put a few things to rest. Although I would argue The Founder is respectful of all parties involved in the main plot, it's clear that there's a very appropriate attention to the fact that, yes, Ray Kroc's methods we're not okay, despite showing repeated details of all the boons he received from his negligent actions. I also do not feel like the content of this film is a celebration of a "winner takes all" situation, but rather, a dissection.
Moving on from the moral implications, this movie handles a lot of cinematic elements extremely well. I don't often speak on shot composition, lighting, and scene transition but the flow and visual appeal of this film is phenomenal, not to mention it's a period piece, something not necessary for a good movie, but it's a considerable effort and something I like to point out. The delicate imagery of every single scene compliments the shattering perceptions of every relationship in the film. Scenes ebb and flow so well, I barely noticed when entire transitions would happen because of the attention to objects in focus transferring over into the next scene. For a movie all about business deals, picking up phone calls, and selling burgers, it is shocking for me to look back on it and feel a great deal of mobility and traction was taking place. Upon reflection, I can't think of a single moment of an awkward shot, or inconsistent visuals. it's simply an extremely competent piece of screenplay and composition.
Michael Keaton does a brilliant acting job, and occupies a ridiculously high percentage of the movies two hour run time. Although a serious applause for the supporting cast as well. I was really impressed with Laura Dern despite her not having a ton of screentime. Her character is relatively unlikable but is given a lot of opportunity to reveal her sentimentality and simple, loving nature, making the eventual divorce much more blunt as you never see her again. Nick Offerman, despite having such a recognizable voice and demeanor, seems to take his role seriously enough to suspend my disbelief that it's the same character as Ron Swanson. Just, everyone delivers a great performance even down to the child actors and bit parts.
Where I struggle with this movie is that it's so limited by it's premise. Not being able to work outside of the facts, leaves a lot of movies of this fashion to be dry, and a regurgitation of bullet-points. I thoroughly believe this is an excellent example of execution under the circumstances, but there's almost no room for explosive bouts of creativity, style, and ingenuity in plot and outcome to grant any real excitement or allure. I claim this is all positive earlier, and that's because I genuinely believe that FOR THE CONCEPT. However, it just doesn't beat out what makes movies really stand out to me, and for many others, which is a central vision of abstract concepts, subverting expectations, and playfulness of convention for the purpose of creating an engaging and unique experience. That just can't really happen in the format presented. Therefore my recommendation comes with a caveat of "my opinion is purely predicated on the execution of the individual elements and transformative properties of what a movie with this type of subject matter can be" which isn't to say that this movie or others like it can never be "good", they just fundamentally are limited. I often prefer straight documentaries for this reason, since they do not have to follow a narrative flow, and crafted screenplay, and can be critiqued appropriately.
Is The Founder interesting? Yes. But it's a docu-movie. Any movie that has to balance creative freedom and fact is going to have a hard time getting all of it's points across in an entertaining fashion in a cohesive and coherent manner. I want to celebrate this movie for what it is, and I intend on watching it more as the years go by.
I recommend this movie for people who like this type of "based on a true story" retelling, but more strongly for people who don't. I firmly believe this is one of the better examples I've seen of the genre when it comes to bridging the gap between historical reenactment and cinema. As much as I have enjoyed movies like "the trial of the chicago 7" (also starring Keaton and Lynch) for the attempt to combine entertaining and loosely educational material, I haven't agreed with their statuses as being particularly re-watchable. So whether you love these types of movies or not, I want you to see what they could be, and that's where The Founder stands for me.
As always, This has been The Shelf signing off with another recommendation. I hope to see you next week, for a new review.