The Founder (2017)
Directed by John Lee Hancock
Written by Robert Siegel
Produced by Jeremy Renner, Don Handfield, Aaron Ryder, Michael Sledd, Parry Creedon, Glen Basner, Holly Brown, Alison Cohen, David Glasser, David S. Greathouse, William D. Johnson, Christos V. Konstantakopoulos, Karen Lunder, Bob Weinstein, Harvey Weinstein
Starring Michael Keaton, Nick Offerman, John Carroll Lynch, B.J. Novak, Laura Dern, Linda Cardellini, Kate Kneeland, Patrick Wilson, Justin Randell Brooke, Griff Furst, Wilbur Fitzgerald, David de Vries, Andrew Benator, Cara Mantella
“The definition of salesmanship is the gentle art of letting the customer have it your way.”
In his own words: “I was 52 years old. I had diabetes and incipient arthritis. I had lost my gall bladder and most of my thyroid gland in earlier campaigns, but I was convinced the best was ahead of me.” In the mid-’50s, aging salesman Ray Kroc (Keaton) itinerated interstate, struggling with sporadic success to peddle Prince Castle’s deluxe milkshake mixers to proprietors of drive-ins, whose sloppy refections and shoddy service courtesy of pretty, rollerskating carhops were insults added to every unsold injury. To satisfy a seemingly impossible order for eight such units in San Bernardino, he happened upon a modern miracle of a little eatery that prepared for lengthy queues cheap, savory, instantaneously prepared burgers, French fries and milkshakes by skilled, sanguine, sanitary staff indoors. A tour of this facility by its owners, designers and managers, Richard (Offerman) and Maurice (Lynch) McDonald, fascinates Kroc, as does their alacritous account over dinner of their career in the food service industry: thirty years of presentational and logistical trial and error developed with Mac’s procedural and mechanical inventions, Dick’s showmanship and their shared, reductive intent to eliminate troublesome conventions that resulted in a sedulously subtilized system that optimized both quality of service and product, and a quantity sufficient to satisfy every customer. The loquacious pitchman’s consequently obsessed with a vision to franchise this local invention of fast food; after selling himself and their own business recontextualized as a boldly branded national chain to the circumspect siblings, he contracts with them as a franchiser to succeed where they failed to maintain the cibarious homogeneity and competence of extraneous outlets. Forays into new markets prove remunerative, but frustrating for that recurrent qualitative slide and their menus’ regional drift, so the energetic Kroc replaces their managers with hungry, capable employees with whom he identifies, such as a hawker of Bibles (Benator) and a veteran of the Korean War (Franco Castan) who sells vacuum cleaners door to door. Despite his booming eastward growth, burgeoning eminence and obligation of his mortgaged house for capital, Kroc finds himself at a midwestern impasse and knee-deep in arrears for a deficit of revenue imputable to the restrictions of his contract, but a fortuitous encounter with financier Harry J. Sonneborn (Novak) introduces him to his shrewdest business partner, who convinces him to preveniently purchase prospective plots of his outlets and lease them to his franchisees via a corporation, to which he’s eventually appointed by Kroc as its first president and CEO. By virtue of this M.O., the franchise’s profits and expansion magnified twentyfold, but Kroc’s failing marriage to his neglected wife (Dern), invited designs on the spouse (Cardellini) of a successful restaurateur and multiple franchisee (Wilson) and loggerheads with the brothers McDonald reveal the chatty oligopolist’s amoral avaritia for limitless commerce.
Its intricate period detail and perfectly picked players sell Hancock’s congenially conventional biopic, which is faithful enough to substantially portray a personage who’s as much its antagonist as protagonist. Ever-squirrely Keaton mimics with slight amplification Kroc’s accent and mannerisms, enacting the roguish devil with fidelity to his characteristic brio and glimpses of his elusive sensitivity. Everyone else serves as his foil with buttoned-down bearings true to this staid era. Warhorses of many quirkily mundane roles, Offerman and Lynch look and feel genuine as the ingenuously principled craftsmen who pioneered the revolutionary model arrogated by their franchiser, and Novak’s icily mesmerizing as Sonneborn. Most fictive and biographic features are muddled by exposition and cutbacks, but thanks to Siegel’s accessible dialogue, Hancock’s demonstrative composition and Robert Frazen’s measured editing, these are the picture’s highlights: at a tennis court, Dick and Mac train their staff and gradually devise an ideal layout for their restaurant’s production line with chalked, commensurate diagrams; Sonneborn enkindles in the audience a glimmer of the same excitement and relief that Kroc must’ve felt when elaborating on the potential of the chain’s most significant single strategy; Kroc petitions synagogues, Shriners’ Halls and Masonic Lodges for investment with an exhaustively rehearsed sales talk eulogizing familial values. Siegel’s script often deviates from accuracy for dramatic purposes: neither was Kroc’s divorce from his first wife so suddenly announced, nor his feuds with the McDonalds quite so wroth, and Cardellini seems sexier behind a piano than an organ when she first entrances her future husband. Ultimately, both Kroc and the McDonalds personify phases of postwar prosperity — the former is an avatar of the tenacity and ambition that advanced the United States’ extraordinary industries in the twentieth century, and the latter typical of so many innovators whose creations facilitated it. Bombs are still as American as apple pie.
Recommended for a double feature paired with Sometimes a Great Notion.