The evolving nature of the film biopic has recently become quite interesting to me. Insofar as Pablo Larraín’s Jackie is as much about Theodore H. White’s Life magazine article as it is about the iconic First Lady, so John Lee Hancock’s The Founder is as much about the process of business franchising across the United States in the 1950s as it is about the man who made McDonald’s the corporate empire it is today.
That is not to say that Michael Keaton’s performance as Ray Kroc, nor the delightful duo of John Caroll Lynch and Nick Offerman, who portray the McDonald brothers Mac and Dick (respectively), are not important or excellent. Of course they are. Kroc innovated the franchise model and was the driving force behind nationalizing fast food; for a while he was the richest man in America. The McDonald brothers innovated the process whereby cooking and serving burgers and fries was approached more like an industrial assembly-line than a kitchen; efficiency and repeatabilty are king.
By focusing on the minutiae of moving from a single, fresh-thinking restaurant to a nationwide, and eventually international, chain, Robert D. Seigel’s script elevates The Founder to a story about America as an idea and how that idea is expressed at a certain point in the nation’s history, akin to the way Easy Rider or Ace In The Hole or American Honey are fascinating inquiries into what, exactly is America in the late 1960s, the late 1940s or in the mid 2010s.
Sure, it is simple enough just to lob out a few ‘great cinema’ titles and call it a day, but it also becomes obvious that (particularly because I am Canadian) the very titles I choose from thousands of excellent movies about America, is more a reflection of what I think of the complex toffee-swirl of regions, ideals and flavours that is the United States.
The Founder is told from the perspective of Ray Kroc, the travelling salesman who took the idea of fast food, and brought essentially one restaurant in America to one (or more) restaurant in every town in America. At the outset of the film, in the early 1950s, Kroc is pitching high efficiency milk-shake machines to owners of drive-in restaurants, you know, the kind where the waitresses on roller-skates serve fries, ribs and shakes through the car windows of teenagers.
His smooth sales pitch, road-warrior attitude and collection of disturbingly garish neckties set the stage for the age-old rags to riches story, the one where elbow grease, gumption and a wee bit of luck realize the untapped potential of the individual. The rosy rural cinematography by John Schwartzman, who shot Colin Trevorrow’s Jurassic World, and will soon be shooting Star Wars Episode IX, and the generic yet oddly satisfying soundtrack, courtesy Carter Burwell, both underscore the familiar nature of this story. Surprisingly, the execution is 180 degrees from any semblance of the direction of the movie.