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Thursday, January 26, 2017

Film Review - THE FOUNDER

As an actor, Michael Keaton is unable to mask his razor-sharp intellect. There’s a nervous, fidgety energy about him, a sense that he’s always working angles in his head. We always suspect he’s a step or two ahead of those around him, and that he’s consistently engaged by his secret determination to remain so. His best films, such as Tim Burton’s Batman entries, Beetlejuice, Spotlight, The Paper or Jackie Brown, tap into the live-wire eccentricity hidden beneath his everyman exterior and burst to life whenever he so much as raises his cocksure, devilish eyebrows.

It’s been great fun watching Hollywood rediscover him the last few years, beginning with the best picture-winning Birdman, and it’s a pleasure to see him land another perfect gig in The Founder, John Lee Hancock’s amusing biopic of wily McDonald’s visionary Ray Kroc. Opening in the mid-1950s, the movie chronicles the unlikely windfall of Keaton’s fast-talking-yet-floundering milkshake salesman after he stumbles upon a novel California eatery that serves up hot burgers while you wait. Instantly enamored with the joint, and its inventive behind-the-counter operations, he talks himself into a partnership with naïve owners Dick and Mac McDonald (Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch), and quickly focuses on blowing up the brothers' proud brand through franchising. Soon, however, Ray’s insecurities and ruthless, desperate ambitions bring him into conflict with his unsuspecting new partners, birthing an ugly war for ownership of the fledgling fast food empire.

While the notion of a McDonald’s origin story may not seem like the most tantalizing of creative endeavors, it’s an ideal project for director Hancock. Since making his helming debut with the 2002 baseball drama The Rookie, he’s shown a unique passion for exploring classic American institutions, from 2004’s The Alamo, to football (The Blind Side) and Disney (Saving Mr. Banks). And while he undeniably lacks the incisive, merciless bite of a true cultural critic, he’s a charming, breezy
filmmaker with a knack for crafting smart, pleasantly involving historical recreations that play well to mainstream audiences.

The Founder is no different, albeit with a more pessimistic edge thanks to Keaton’s unrepentant protagonist. And although Hancock doesn’t totally villainize Kroc – the movie leaves little doubt that his shameless self-promotion, go-for-broke investments and shady business tactics were crucial in propagating the McDonald’s name – it also doesn’t try to paint him as a misunderstood hero or unorthodox champion of the glorious American dream. No, as portrayed he’s an undeniable selfish bastard, dismissive of his weary supportive wife (an underused Laura Dern), and calculated in his efforts to exploit family values and community pride in order to sell cheap artery-clogging food. It’s too bad the script, by Robert Siegel (The Wrestler, Big Fan), wasn’t a little bit meaner, or interested in really delving into the relentless psychology that drove its subject. As entertaining as the picture is, it’s a little disappointing it never quite strives for the same deep dive analysis as Aaron Sorkin’s not dissimilarThe Social Network or Steve Jobs screenplays.
Even if the film’s aspirations are a bit artistically modest, Keaton has rarely been more committed. Speaking in a rat-a-tat Midwestern accent, and grinning like the Cheshire Cat, the actor explodes with over-compensating self-assurance. Whether unloading aggressively cheesy salesman patter directly into the camera, or shooting condescending barbs at Offerman and Lynch’s endearingly sympathetic, yet hopelessly out-of-their-depth, entrepreneurs, it’s a big, showy Movie Star© performance that skillfully propels the narrative and makes even the more mundane inside baseball dealings intriguing. This cinematic version of Kroc is the only guy in the room who truly knows the score, so it’s fitting that the solid supporting players, including Patrick Wilson, Linda Cardellini and an icy B.J. Novak, always seem to be orbiting him without ever quite stealing away the spotlight.

Watching our lead scheme and manipulate his way into fame and fortune at the expense of his innovative, hard-working colleagues, it’s impossible to ignore The Founder’s regrettably timely and relevant message. Hancock may not break much new ground in telling this very familiar story, but it’s well-acted and highly effective at communicating the ins and outs of McDonald’s journey towards global juggernaut status. And in Keaton’s Ray Kroc, we have a compelling embodiment of crass capitalist opportunism run amuck. Even if we don't necessarily need more of those right now.

3.5 out of 5

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