I’m a middlebrow kind of guy, generally. I’m perfectly happy with consuming media that has no greater ambition than to entertain or tell a good story. That’s not a statement of advocacy, just a fact. And because of that fact, your projects tend to hit my sweet spot.
Whatever greater lessons exist in the subtext of this film—the rise of corporatism and it’s corollary: the decline of mom and pop enterprises in the latter half of the twentieth century—what the The Founder does remarkably well is tell, in a simple but compelling fashion, the story of the rise of McDonalds from a single roadside diner to a multi-billion dollar corporate behemoth.
Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton who continues his phoenix like re-emergence onto the A-list) is a character whose through line is an absorbing, cautionary tale about how innovation and small scale entrepreneurs can fall prey to corporate appropriation. From humble beginnings he became the singular avatar of all that is wrong with late-stage capitalism. Watching him evolve from a slightly shady travelling salesmen to an utterly heartless CEO is both appalling and also completely fascinating—and a lot of that is down to how effortlessly Keaton shepherds that transition. He portrays Kroc as a folksy monster, so that each step in his metamorphosis is tinged with a casual, almost banal, amorality. We get to watch how increasing wealth and power expose the essential weaknesses of his character, while also being given a pretty good primer on how we went from single owner diners and department stores to ubiquitous franchise restaurants and box stores the size of city blocks.
But all of this is background, and none of it is essential to engaging with the film. Just watching Ray navigate his way to the top, over and through anyone foolish enough to get in his way, is what makes The Founder compelling. And Ray leaves a long list of casualties in his wake.
There are almost always a bevy of quality, understated performances in your films, and The Founder is no exception. Laura Dern, John Carroll Lynch, and B.J. Novak all have small, but pivotal, roles. But for me the real revelation was Nick Offerman as one of the two McDonalds brothers. He was quietly brilliant, subtly projecting both competence in his area of expertise, and utter befuddlement with the ethically bereft shenanigans Kroc perpetrates.
Some of what I admire about your filmography is the regularity with which you produce what people often refer to as Oscar bait. What that seems to mean is films with a complex central characters located in interesting historical settings, married to strong scripts and quietly effective direction. The kind of films that put story front and centre, rather than submitting to auteurist tendencies (your ongoing relationship with Tarantino being a profound exception).
As with Gold, The Founder is meat and potatoes film making. The emphasis on the basics of storytelling—a good script, coherent plot, smart casting—is a refreshing shift from a landscape filled with creators that sometimes seem to have lost sight of these fundamentals. This is not a film that seeks to innovate or break new ground, but it’s absolutely a film that succeeds in its ambitions, however straightforward they might be.