Sunday, February 19, 2017

There Will Be Burgers: Michael Keaton in The Founder

When Michael Keaton made his memorable feature film debut in Ron Howard's agreeably funny 1982 comedy, Night Shift, he played Billy "Blaze" Blazejowski, Henry Winkler's high-strung co-worker in a New York City morgue, who described himself as an "idea man." Endlessly bouncing from side to side, as if hot coals were consistently biting at his feet, Billy Blaze was a whirligig of a hustler and budding entrepreneur, a frugging Sammy Glick, whose eyeballs popped out like headlights in a speeding car at the thought of inventing edible paper. His role in the film was to snap Winkler's sleeping nebbish back to life, and Keaton himself was wide awake, an endlessly riffing jack-in-the-box with the relentless beat of "Jumping Jack Flash" on constant repeat in his brain pan, sending comic bolts through the picture. As he plays Ray Kroc, an Illinois travelling salesman in the mid-fifties down on his luck trying to sell five-spindled milkshake machines to fast-food outlets across America, the blaze has gone out of Keaton's bluster and the beat has gone out of his step, but he's replaced it with the shrewd acumen of finely tuned opportunism.  Nipping religiously from a little flask, Keaton's Kroc is Billy Blaze with his headlights dimmed and Norman Vincent Peale setting the beat instead of The Stones, but his shark's teeth haven't lost their razor bite. When Kroc sets his eyes on a tiny burger enterprise in San Bernardino, California, run by brothers Mac (John Carroll Lynch) and Dick McDonald (Nick Offerman), who have begun to revolutionize the concept of fast-food service, he senses opportunity the way a vampire smells blood. Unlike Billy Blaze, who wanted to feed the world his teeming ideas, Michael Keaton's Ray Kroc wants to feed off the ideas of others and then take all the credit for himself. With a prowess that's canny, Keaton plays Kroc as a cipher magnate who, in time, creates a billion-dollar empire by branding an international restaurant chain that never had to bear his own name.

John Lee Hancock's The Founder might be a straightforward chronicle of the transformation of American ingenuity into carny expediency, but it sure couldn't be more timely and it's consistently engaging. You could say the theme is no different than that of Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood (2007), where the predatory qualities of American capitalism also got an airing, but that picture was seasoned with a whiff of self-conscious irony. The Founder shows an acute curiosity about the rapacious hunger of the aspiring merchant prince instead of being punitive about it like There Will Be Blood – which portrayed America's speculators as symbols, nightmares always lurking under the American dream. The Founder is generously inquisitive about the industrialist. Hancock, along with screenwriter Robert D. Spiegel, cleverly contrasts Ray Kroc's imposed notions of American wholesomeness, which he hopes to sell across the country, with the McDonald brothers' more parochial entrepreneurial spirit, which grows out of their connection to the community they live in. The comparison turns out to be both comical and poignant as the brothers' dream ultimately gets usurped, as Dick says, by the wolf they have let in the hen house. Even if their fate is tinged with comedy - the lumbering John Carroll Lynch and the diminutive yet stocky Nick Offerman are tag-team comics -- Hancock resists turning Mac and Dick into hayseeds for us to laugh at. Their love of enterprise is their bond as brothers; we see how easily Kroc is able to exploit it, and we feel the pain of that exploitation. The Founder gives us an America that is not so much a nation with a unified vision, but a land built on roads that link a transient citizenry. Kroc, who has always been on the road, sees perfectly how McDonald's can be a beacon of golden arches that feed a fractured country bound together by the image he is trying to sell them.

John Carroll Lynch and Nick Offerman.

For all the wholesomeness that Ray hopes to foster nationwide, his home life is no Norman Rockwell idyll. Hamburger heavens may continue to pop up across the American landscape, but Kroc's wife, Ethel (Laura Dern), tends an empty house where evening dinners with her spouse have gotten to be rare occasions. Although the script has given Dern little character to play, she makes her brief moments count. Ethel's festering melancholy leaves a lingering aftertaste. She's forced to come to terms with a life that has left her an abandoned jewel in a suburban treasure chest. On the other hand, Kroc's future wife, Joan (Linda Cardellini), who, when he meets her, is still married to Rollie (Patrick Wilson), an eager-to-please franchisee, becomes the real gold in Ray's bounty and shares his national dream. The scene of her playfully introducing Ray to an instant powdered milkshake is a beautifully comic twist on the iconic Fifties image of teenagers sharing the real beverage as a dating ritual.

The Founder has a grounded awareness, too, of how factory precision in restaurant food production became popular in the post-war years just as Americans were growing restless and teenage consumers were dotting the landscape. Speed and efficiency were essential in serving a growing number of restless citizens on the move. Hancock doesn't dehumanize these groups, but instead lets us see exactly what Kroc witnesses – the burger as an emblem for those who desire instant gratification.

As a critical commentary on corporate culture, The Founder will likely disappoint those who seek a thesis drama. It avoids delving into McDonald's dining compromises which later contributed to obesity and poor nutrition. The corporation's charitable work is also largely ignored. But The Founder is still a fascinating picture to usher in the Trump era because Keaton's Kroc, while a throwback to the characters in Sinclair Lewis's novels, is also a harbinger of the dogged identity branding that's now part of the populist politics that brought Trump to power. The Founder is about the birth of the huckster millionaire, the real-estate mogul who hard-sells the masses with the promise of a better life. Michael Keaton gets pretty far inside Ray Kroc's tenaciousness -- a brutal game of survival that takes no prisoners -- without ever going soft, or becoming a caricatured archetype (as Daniel Day Lewis' tycoon became in There Will Be Blood). He's the common man as captain of industry, but he's also a con artist. Kroc didn't build on the traditional American model of supply and demand; he reversed it by demanding that America take what he supplied. If you look at Washington today and the political realities now facing the nation, you might just shudder as you recognize what The Founder offers on the menu.

 Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of Zappa, Randy Newman's American Dreams, 33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica, Artificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

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