THE FOUNDER – DULL BIOPIC OF THE BUSINESS VULTURE RAY KROC IN A WASTE OF KEATON’S TALENTS

SHORT TAKE:

Dry and uninvolving biopic, despite Michael Keaton's efforts, about Ray Kroc, the avaricious business predator, who co-opted then outsted the McDonald brothers from their own creation.

WHO SHOULD WATCH:

Limited to adults and older teens only because some language and Kroc's lack of interpersonal and business ethics. The mechaniations of enterprise – good and bad – might be interesting to business and history students.

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LONG TAKE:

If you can not be a good example be a horrible warning. I'm not sure which one the makers of The Founder intended it to be.

The Founder is a 2016 biopic about Ray Kroc, the man who made McDonald's a multi-bazillion dollar enterprise and its distinct Golden Arches logo one of the most recognizable symbols on (literally) the entire planet.

McDonald's was a singular hamburger restaurant – one of, if not the first, walk-up, designed by the McDonald brothers, Maurice and Richard (John Carroll Lynch of Jackie – see my review of Jackie here – and Nick Offerman from Parks and Recreation). Their's was a unique concept, carefully designed and laid out, innovative and revoluitionary in the Drive-In-car hop-predominated culture of America in the 1950's. Richard and Maurice, had created this style as a money saver – no car hops, broken glassware, or dallying hoodlums. People stood in line to get great tasting burgers, in throw away packaging, in a clean family friendly environment. What the McDonald brothers saw as the fulfillment of a lifelong dream, Ray Kroc saw as a golden goose just waiting to be plucked.

SPOILERS

The film starts with Ray as an unsuccessful multi-spindle milkshake salesman who happens upon this singular successful enterprise and recognizes the brilliant business model for what it is. The McDonald brothers think "small" but Ray believes in BIG. And the McDonald brothers don't know to whom they are linking their futures when they sign a contract with Ray to establish franchises. Ray's personal motto is "Persistence" and he uses his formidable variation on it to: slowly negotiate, maneuver and leverage their business right out from under them, steal the wife of one of his franchise partners, leave his own wife, and cheat the McDonald brothers out of the royalty fees to which they were promised when they inevitably are forced to sell out to Ray.

This is NOT a nice man, but then neither was Vito Corleone in The Godfather Trilogy or Loki from The Avengers movies. And people generally love both the Corleone patriarch and Thor's sly brother as guilty pleasures.  But what the latter two had in abundance, Ray Kroc, as portrayed in The Founder, had none of – and that was a relatable personality.

The Founder plays out like the dramatically filmed version of a documentary. It is not filmed in documentary style but is written as a series of facts filmed in vignettes. The movie is seen through Ray Kroc's eyes in a terrific performance by Michael Keaton but only in the visual sense. By that I mean, we see what happens as Kroc himself might remember them but we, the audience, get no real feel for seeing AS Kroc might have seen life. We are never given opportunity to see the world as Ray Kroc sees it. We only hear him voice the sentiments of his own avarice without understanding what it was that drove him to HAVE those views. No back story, no moments of reflection, no knowing how he reconciles with or justifies to himself what he has done to others. Certainly, no King Claudius self-tormenting moments from Hamlet, wherein the character knows the wrong he has done and would like to repent but is unable because of his own weaknesses for the things he has acquired through those same outrageous acts.

Keaton has been Batman, Bird Man, Vulture in Spiderman Homecoming, and Mr. Mom – all variations on super heroes with a dark but redemptively inclined streak in one form or another (even his character in the comedy Mr Mom gets within a hair's breadth of the dark action of cheating on his wife but comes to his senses in the nick of time). So playing an appealing villain would not be his first rodeo. Unfortunately, the script gives him little to do but posture and go through the motions. Once he establishes his unsuccessful frustrated character then woos the McDonald brothers, the rest of the movie is merely a checklist of events. Expand the business – check. Buy land – check. Meet his business associate's wife and show interest – check. Use innovations, like dried instant milkshake without the McDonald brothers permission – check. Tell the brothers he has more money and so he can do what he wants and they are  out – check. Movie over – check.

Don't get me wrong. Keaton does his best with this dry script. He even manages a few moments which gives a glimmer of what the movie should have been. For example, there's one scene where he joins his future second wife, Joan (Linda Cardellini from Daddy's Home and Avengers: Age of Ultron) at a piano where she works and, right in front of her husband, manages to woo her by singing with her. And the first scenes which show his woeful attempts to sell his multi-mixers demonstrate his gift of gab which is falling on deaf ears. I mean, his pitch was so good I was almost ready to buy one! But, alas, his potential buyers were noT so convinced. So you come to understand why, when he sees this extremely profitable "hamburger joint" his mouth starts watering and not just for the French fries. But for every one of the few interesting scenes there are several astonishingly bland ones, such as when he announces, as they eat a silent dinner at their kitchen table, to his all but ignored wife, Ethel, (Laura "Jurassic Park"  Dern), that he wants a divorce. She just puts down her fork, the camera pans back and away from her, the end. (Huh?) The audience pretty much knew this was coming, but instead of Beatrice Straight's Oscar winning 5 minutes in Network where she reads her husband the riot act for walking out on her, we get something more akin to the emotional vacuum of Dave as he eats alone in the empty house in 2001.

This is a humorless look at the man. Kroc states as his personal philosophy to the McDonald brothers at one point – "If my competitor was drowning I'd stick a hose in his mouth." So "business is business" is obviously a manifesto with Kroc. But that does not mean this arid POV has to be reflected in the way the movie is written. I can't help but wonder how much better this movie would have been with a Cohen Brothers-style hero in the lead.

In short, this is a flat film whose basic moral could be stated as: "If you are persistent enough you can have everything you want and never have to suffer the consequences of your evil actions." Kroc stole his partners' business, his friend's wife, and cheated the McDonald brothers out of hundreds of millions of dollars of royalties —- because he could. But we ultimately don't care. We don't know the abused well enough to empathize and we are givennothing with which to relate to the main character.  It's an unpalatable story which wastes the considerable talents of Keaton.

So……….next time, Keaton wants to play a vulture, I'd much rather it be one in a Spiderman sequel.

A NEW POST – A NEW LEAF

In both the reference to a movie of the same name, and as an analogy for the fact we are taking a break from the ongoing much longer blog about Back to the Future and fatherhood —–

We interrupt this multi-post on Back to the Future to bring you – as John Cleese might say – something completely different.

I would venture to say that most, if not all of you, have never heard of the movie A New Leaf. Penned, directed and starring Elaine May, co-starring the iconic Walter Matthau, this is a small budget film made in 1971 based upon the short story, The Green Heart, by Jack Ritchie. The protagonist, Henry Grahame, (Matthau) is a self-absorbed, self-indulgent aristocratic heir who runs through his family fortune until, in his late thirties finds himself without friends or fortune. There is only one person in the world who cares anything about him, Harold (the delightful singer and Shakespearean theatrical actor, George Rose), Henry’s valet, who sums up the basis for his loyalty to Henry in this one speech: “How many men these days require the services of a gentleman’s gentleman? How many men have your devotion to form, sir? You have managed, in your own lifetime Mr. Graham, to keep alive traditions that were dead before you were born.”

Of course, Harold tempers this with the warning that if Mr. Graham continues to be poor, he immediately tenders his two week notice.

Henry quickly realizes that, for him, there are only two options: suicide…………….or marrying rich. With Harold’s aide Henry embarks on a quest to find a rich widow or single heiress who would be tolerable to his refined tastes and isolated ways. He soon discovers that while there are MANY candidates, he can’t stand any of them…until he finds the least suitable one of all. An extremely wealthy but ugliest of ugly ducklings. Shy, socially awkward, clumsy, naive, gullible – she is everything Henry would NOT want in a mate, aside from the money. However, it suddenly occurs to him, she would be quite easy to —— murder.

So begins the courtship and honey-murder, I mean —moon of one of the most charming little comedies I have ever seen. It is ultimately a film about the power of love, redemption and poetic justice, but told in the singularly most UN-conventional and UN-sentimental way I have ever seen demonstrated.

I REALLY am not going to spoil this one for you. You have to see it……if you can. It is quite hard to find and after much searching I located a copy on VHS.

But if possible, I recommend this movie as one of my all time favorites. This movie would be appropriate, with parental supervision, for even younger teens. Henry is quite chaste. There is very little profanity and no sex. Henry’s SOLE vice is avarice. The only questionable moment is when one socialite attempts to seduce him and Henry, in a breathtaking moment of humor, literally runs screaming from her.

Walter Matthau is at his finest in a brilliant example of miscasting gone right. Aside from Hello Dolly, I can’t think of a less appropriate vehicle for Matthau. But – as in Hello Dolly – he is such an amazing actor that he pulls off the deliciously arrogant and thoroughly self-centered Henry while making him – somehow – adorable.

Elaine May is perfectly terrific as the totally INcapable Henrietta Lowell. Vulnerable, dependent, socially oblivious and educated to the point of being a blithering idiot in everything except her one field of interest – botony – May creates a child-like character who is both endearing and extremely annoying at the same time. You come to understand why Henry would consider killing her yet dread her disappearance. May is probably not familiar to too many. She made her biggest mark with Mike Nichols as half of an improvisational comedy duo and did a good deal of stage work. She was in only about a dozen films, including a teensy part in The Graduate, wrote only 10 screenplays and directed only four movies, the last mostly because of her tendency to go way over budget. As an aside, one of her directorial efforts was Ishtar, the biggest financial flop in history at that time.

But she did manage to produce A New Leaf – this beautiful blossom of a movie.