Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, February 3, 2017

Critics Corner: Un-Happy Meal, better movie

Remarkably, “The Founder” is partially based on the autobiography of Ray Kroc, the man who acquired McDonald’s and grew it into a fast food powerhouse.

I say “remarkably” because the film doesn’t flatter the man. It does, however, offer a captivating performance by Michael Keaton.

“The Founder” is bookended by close-ups of Keaton performing a monologue into the camera. In the beginning, he’s practicing his sales pitch for a milk shake mixer. It consists of the typical hogwash designed to manipulate the target into making a purchase.

When Kroc fails to sells any machines that day, he returns to his hotel room and plays a motivational speech on his portable record player. “Unrecognized genius is a cliché,” says the voice on the turntable. “Persistence and determination are all powerful.”

At the end of “The Founder,” Kroc appears to be practicing a speech for an event to be attended by President Reagan. By that time, he’s grown McDonald’s from one restaurant to 7,500 using aggressive and underhanded business tactics.

Many of the words he’s trying to memorize are quotes from the record, although Kroc will clearly be claiming them as his own. Before the screen fades to black, a disturbed look crosses Kroc’s face. I’m not sure what he was thinking, but it might have been something along the lines of, “What have I really done?”

The final shot is crucial because without it “The Founder” would have been a fascinating but morally void telling of how Kroc railroaded a pair of unassuming brothers out of their very name and cheated them out of hundreds of millions of dollars as he grew the first fast food empire. The final shot gives Kroc, and possibly McDonald’s, something resembling a conscience.

I had a great time watching “The Founder.” The early scenes of Kroc learning about the McDonald brothers and their Speedee Service System after Dick and Mac ordered six of his milkshake mixers have a lot of energy and zip.

It’s fun watching the light come on in Keaton’s eyes as his character realizes what the brothers seemingly don’t – that McDonald’s has potential far beyond their imagining.

Even the awkward bits are entertaining. In one extended sequence, Kroc takes Dick and Mac to dinner and listens as the brothers proudly spill the beans on their whole operation.

The scene plays like a filmed version of a Wikipedia page about the early days of McDonald’s and is shamelessly expositional, but I watched it wide-eyed and slack jawed, amazed by the naiveté of the brothers. (Hindsight truly is 20-20.)

At times, screenwriter Robert Siegel (“The Wrestler”) and director John Lee Hancock (“The Blind Side”) pursue irony too eagerly. When Kroc insists, against the brothers’ dogged refusal,  to compromise the quality of their food by serving fake milkshakes to cut costs and increase profits, Dick cries, “Why don’t we just start selling frozen French fries and put sawdust in our burgers?”

These bits and pieces are ham-fisted and clumsy but easily forgiven in light of how well-written and directed the movie is overall.

Things gradually go from buoyant and upbeat to somber and reflective. As the film lays out Kroc’s sins, I wondered how he had been able to sleep at night. From stealing the wife of a business associate to refusing to pay the McDonald brothers untold millions in royalties, he should have had a few night of twisted sheets.

In my deliberation, I believe I found the heart of “The Founder.” First and foremost, it’s an absorbing portrait of a hugely successful opportunist. But it’s also a treatise on the dark side of American Dream. One man’s success story is another man’s nightmare. Consider the movie’s poster, which shows the famous Golden Arches splayed behind Keaton like angel’s wings and sets the actor against a backdrop of pure red, which suggests a more sinister reading of his character.

“The Founder” never ceases to be interesting or entertaining, though, thanks to the solid work done at every level of the production. I was especially fond of Keaton, who found all of Kroc’s layers and brought the man to vivid life.

One of the great movie-going pleasures of the first few months of the year is the ability to see a wealth of small, quality adult dramas. These usually reach a few theaters at the end of the preceding year to qualify for the Oscars,  then go into wider release in January to capitalize on nominations and take advantage of the lack of tent-pole releases during the winter months.

Although the “The Founder” didn’t get any Oscar nominations, it belongs on the same pedestal as the films that did. It’s entertaining, thought-provoking and satisfying. It also sticks with you. It’s been five days since I’ve seen it, and I can’t get that last shot out of my mind.

3.5 stars out of 4