Burgers and Lies: The Founder Repackages the Corrupt Capitalism Biopic

Michael Keaton in The Founder (2016)

Dave author pic“Better one great restaurant than fifty mediocre ones.”

That’s the espoused philosophy of the McDonald brothers, Dick (Nick Offerman) and Mac (John Carroll Lynch). In a fair world, The Founder – which follows the meteoric rise of McDonald’s in the mid-‘50s – would be the story of Dick and Mac, a pair of innovative businessmen who revolutionised the restaurant industry with the concept – and immaculate execution – of fast food. Early in the film, director John Lee Hancock presents a fast-paced montage chronicling the McDonald brothers’ rise from wannabe actors to creators of the “Speedee Service System”, and it’s hard not to admire their determination and ingenuity.

But, as you’ve probably guessed, The Founder doesn’t take place in a fair world. It takes in this world, and so it’s the story of one Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton), a milkshake-salesman-turned-franchise-agent who engineered McDonald’s success as a restaurant at the expense of the men whose name is emblazoned across the tens of thousands of outlets stretching the globe today. This is a story of McDonald’s so, of course, it’s also the story of American capitalism: the story of turning something special into something ‘successful.’

Hancock’s approach to the film feels directly inspired by the McDonald’s business model: fast-paced, flashy and without a hint of subtlety. Every moment in the film is bright and efficient, telegraphing its intentions – to develop character, to establish backstory, to move the plot forward – before zipping to the next scene. The approach might want for artistry, but it keeps proceedings engaging throughout. Like a Happy Meal, you might be left somewhat unsatisfied afterwards: wondering, for example, how Kroc went from having insufficient capital to pay his mortgage to buying up swathes of land, but like any well-packaged product, your satisfaction after-the-fact isn’t really the point.

And make no mistake, The Founder is very much a product. That’s true of most Hollywood output nowadays, of course, but it’s especially apparent as you reflect upon the way Hancock and screenwriter Robert D. Siegel borrow liberally from the films that preceded them: historical biopics and rise/fall stories and cautionary tales about capitalism. Films like The Wolf of Wall Street.

There’s a great deal to distinguish The Founder and The Wolf of Wall Street. Martin Scorsese’s biopic of Wall Street wunderkind Jordan Belfort makes The Founder’s aforementioned ‘flashiness’ look practically pedestrian; a couple neat match cuts and some swift editing have got nothing on Scorsese’s formal frenzy. The Founder is the sort of film you’d take your mum and dad along to; The Wolf of Wall Street is the sort of film you’d turn off if your mum and dad came into the room.

But fundamentally each film is doing the same thing, using the success of their protagonists to offer a vision of caustic capitalism, a system that purports to reward persistence and originality but really celebrates exploitation. Both Belfort and Kroc are beneficiaries of this system, even if their particular brands of exploitation are distinct, with Belfort regularly straying into criminal conduct while Kroc’s extralegal activities are limited to contravening the contract he signed with the McDonalds.

One of the big reasons that The Founder falls far short of The Wolf of Wall Street is that, despite Keaton doing his damnedest, we’re never offered any real sense of Kroc’s interiority. (There are other reasons, naturally, from the film’s formulaic structure to its egregious misuse of Laura Dern, but let’s focus on this one.) Belfort is driven by pure hedonism; Kroc’s quest for success seems to just an inherent personality trait, as though capitalism is baked into his very bones. Even as we hated Belfort, we respected his talent as a salesman; Kroc demonstrates little except the ability to steal other people’s good ideas. The best of those ideas comes from Harry Sonneborn (B.J. Novak), whose real estate innovation – essentially a modernised version of feudalism – is directly responsible for Kroc’s fortune.

The Founder acknowledges that Kroc is a leech – by the conclusion of the film, we watch him practise an important speech, and are encouraged to recognise chunks of the speech as plagiarised from a motivational record he listened to earlier in the film. But this scene itself feels familiar, cribbed from another Scorsese film, Raging Bull. Indeed, The Founder’s sins are shared with its protagonist – its reluctance to innovate, its insistence on repackaging the familiar and selling it as fresh.

Perhaps that was inevitable – the substance of Kroc’s story is one that we’ve seen before, and it’s hardly suited to an experimental approach. But the story would have benefited from a clearer perspective. The Great White Antihero arc is very familiar to audiences nowadays – you just need to have watched a HBO show from the last decade – so some deviation from the ‘bad man who’s good at his job’ model is appreciated.

But The Founder’s approach feels like a step backwards. Kroc isn’t an antihero. He’s a hero for half the film, a villain for the remainder. That’s partly a consequence of cinematic structure; for the first half, he has agency while the McDonalds resist his expansion, so as audience members we’re naturally inclined to align ourselves the character doing stuff. Which is fine, yet when Kroc turns against his restauranteur buddies, the abruptness of the shift feels grounded in historical fact rather than characterisation. We’ve been given little insight into Kroc’s darker side or even, to any substantial degree, his ambition, so it’s unclear if this is the path he’d always intended to walk down – as he boasts later in the film – or if his betrayal was simply a reaction to circumstance.

I liked The Founder, but I can’t help but feel that there’s a better version of the film to be made. One that’s upfront about Kroc’s ambition from the get-go without obscuring his humanity, or one that walks us through his decision-making with more nuance. Late in the film, Kroc offers the McDonald brothers a handshake deal for 1% of his company’s profits in perpetuity. Part of me wants to watch a version of this story where we believe – even just for a second – that he’d keep that promise.

3 stars

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