The Founder is neither a jubilant cheer for bootstrap American capitalism (a gross idea, but committed) nor a lament for genuine compassion and humanity, a film hued in shades of wrath and righteous indignation. It seems not to have much of a perspective at all. Instead, it is a careful, timid, tempered, cautious film that is deliberately micro-managed to dip neither into hagiography nor legitimate criticism. Sure, it acknowledges McDonald’s “founder” Ray Kroc’s venom and the foul underside of capitalism, but the dominant thrust of the narrative – the very oxygen it breathes – is the piston-like ambition of Kroc and his achievements. In some sense, The Founder is even more sinister than an overt hagiography. In clotting the free expression of Kroc’s passion, The Founder reminds us that Hollywood is self-aware enough to manage its enthusiasm for capitalism, not enough to actually challenge it, but simply to let it run free in a slightly less liberated, minutely more compassionate tone.
The dream – the film’s dream – is a dialectic that favors no one side of Kroc, but it isn’t clever enough. Side-eyes to Kroc swigging from a flask in the periphery do not constitute a legitimate auto-critique of the man the film catches whiffs of, nor are they meaningful premonitions of his eventual slippage into the dark side of capitalism. His troubles, not exactly rough edges, are consolation prizes to the film’s steamrolling commitment to Kroc’s buoyancy until, essentially, the finale, when it throttles the brakes and crashes to a self-critical halt that feels extremely dishonest in light of the film’s general high-spirits. The conclusion – when everything comes to a head – is an 11th hour critique, the kind that absolves the film of actually having to investigate in more severity the consequences of Kroc’s actions. I’m tempted to write that the set-up-and-pay-off-governed expectations of the biopic eclipse the film’s critiques of the biopic form, but that implies the two are competing influences. Rather, the two operate in tandem, with the critique slightly neutralizing the excesses of the film’s enthusiasm and thus legitimizing it, making it seem rational and objective. This is the sight of a film tempering itself, not contradicting itself. The latter would be interesting, a filmic blood transfusion rejecting its host and throwing it into moral dialectic tension with itself.
Speaking of the dark side of capitalism, Hancock’s film is extremely committed to capitalism’s Janus headed double-ness, with Kroc its all-devouring dark side and the real McDonald’s founders, Dick, played by Nick Offerman, and Mac, played by John Carroll Lynch, the two heroes the film gushes over with an awe-struck and vaguely condescending tone of rural Americana. Never mind the factorization of workers the McDonalds’ themselves partake in, witnessed in a flashback Hancock hovers over with a Spielbergian glee rather than a Kubrickian awareness that the workers are being turned into post-humans.
Still, when Kroc (Michael Keaton), a viper posing as a milkshake-machine salesman, comes upon the brothers’ thriving San Bernardino, California restaurant and their legitimately revolutionary concept of fast food, it’s easy to cast a nicer eye on the McDonalds brothers. If Kroc didn’t create McDonald’s, he ballooned it into the toxic empire it is today. Mostly, The Founder is the speed-freak take of his manic self-actualization story, his triumph over the brothers and, eventually, a whirlwind tour of his earliest successes, pausing ever so briefly to suggest the difficulties of his first marriage (his first wife is played by Laura Dern) and the relative placidity of marriage to his third wife (played by Linda Cardellini). But all these events seem like facts and nothing more; not experiences, sensations, perceptions, thoughts, ideas, or anything that might actually suggest cinema might be useful for more than mere documentation.
Judging by The Founder, Ray Kroc’s story is a relatively straight-faced rags-to-riches American Dream tale that didn’t need to be told unless the film brought any particular perspective to it. The only stylistic notice the film seems to have gotten beyond bland, corporate American filmmaking of the 21st century variety is its relatively giddy editing schema. Hancock and his editor Robert Frazen option the McDonalds’ version of the artisanal rhythmic cutting from Oliver Stone’s JFK, here microwaved into a flaccid and comparatively hollow form of frenetic editing that keeps things spicy but accomplishes nothing thematically. In JFK, it was a genuine aesthetic, where Oliver Stone’s whirligig editing showmanship was a deliberate study in counter-factual mythmaking designed to create and then critique the truth value of the film’s content. In The Founder, it’s just a reasonably spirited distraction. It was a distraction in JFK too, but JFK was a film about its snake-oil-salesman act of distracting us from its plainly and intentionally ludicrous screenplay.
What does the editing distract from in The Founder? The film’s disinclination to tackle any depths beyond the laziest possible memos about the evils of capitalism if left unchecked. I can think of nothing more emblematic of the film’s myopia than its occasional flashes of remembrance that Laura Dern is an actress under its purview, and that her character exists in this film. She has, perhaps, three scenes, each of which enforce exactly the same point about the disintegration of Kroc’s humanity. (Here, this familial collapse is disconcertedly roped together with the disintegration of traditional American nuclear family values, turning the film into something of a plea for traditional, conservative Americana and an apparently pure and gentle capitalism rather than a possible turn to a more progressive future).
Oddly, The Founder is not only a thematic re-reading of Hancock’s most famous film, The Blind Side, but a film whose only success is a carbon-copy of that film’s: its lead performance. As Kroc, a newly reinvigorated Michael Keaton is a demented cartoon character hoped up on the American Dream and his own ego, effusing off him a performance of embodied flails and preying eyes. He has an electrical storm brewing over his head, but little do the McDonald brothers know, he promises inclement weather. As an anchor, Keaton keeps nothing in place. He’s made of gas, rocketing around the screen with squirrely magnetism that slides into a tone between preacher, snake oil salesman, and ringleader. His next role, the maniacal Adrian Toomes/Vulture in Spider-Man: Homecoming, is notionally that film’s villain, but the contours between the characters are easily traceable. He alone suggests why someone would fall for Kroc’s schtick and, more importantly, how perverted it is that Kroc seems genuinely happy with himself, so happy that Keaton’s rictus grin is frightening by the end. Too bad Homecoming, no great film or treatise on anything, is a much more cogent analysis of the underbelly of capitalism than The Founder, the story of one capitalism’s most obvious totems.