Monday, 28 November 2016

The Founder

It’s that time of the year again when Michael Keaton attempts to get his foot in the proverbial Oscar nominations door, and this time he’s taking on Ray Kroc - who was hugely influential in the rise of McDonalds - in The Founder.

Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton) is an unsuccessful travelling salesman who is desperately trying to sell milkshake makers. His wife Ethel (Laura Dern) tries her best to support him, but even she’s at the end of her tether. His unbridled ambition keeps him going, but Ray finds little interest out there. All of that changes however when a surprise order of six milkshake makers comes in from a small but popular diner in San Bernadino called McDonalds.

Intrigued by the size of their operation, Ray travels interstate to visit the restaurant and is instantly blown away. The visionary concept of fast and consistent service is the brain child of Dick McDonald (Nick Offerman) who helped develop the business with his supportive brother Mac (John Carroll Lynch). When Ray meets with them and hears their story, he instantly wants to get involved by helping them franchise, however it soon becomes clear to the brothers that Ray doesn’t just want to be a consultant on the sidelines.

The Founder has had several changes to its release date throughout the year, pushing closer and closer towards Oscars season. Hence if you’ve seen a film in the past six months there’s a good chance you’ve seen its trailer, and if you’ve seen the trailer then you know the story. So the only thing unclear when going into The Founder was what sort of approach director John Lee Hancock would take with it, and in particular what sort of corporate influence McDonald’s may have had in the creative process, if any at all. It’s difficult to tell about the latter since it seems to balance bias fairly well, however Hancock can be particularly heavy-handed at times and there’s a feeling throughout that the film may be just a bit too big for its boots.

Supposedly The Founder takes inspiration from There Will Be Blood and The Social Network, however in reality it cannot hope to hold up to the sophisticated stylistic concerns of either of these films, and its watery character development certainly can’t compete with those of the former. In many ways The Founder falls into the category of bland, formula-driven biopics that focus all their attention on getting noticed during awards season, which is a shame because for the first third of the movie, it’s quite capable of drawing you into the fast-paced, competitive world of food service.

During this opening act, the rhythm and timing of the film feels spot-on. Hancock makes efficient use of montages, particularly when the McDonald brothers are telling Ray their story. However at some point during the exponential, brutal rise of McDonalds at the hands of the gung-ho Kroc, the rhythm that drives the first third starts to back off and The Founder falls apart. One slightly-too-loud senior in my screening noted to his wife how tedious the film had become, and I can’t say that I completely disagreed. From around the time that Ray meets Joan, writer Robert Siegel opens up additional sub-plots that don’t have the time or space to play out and hence feel tacked-on for the sole purpose of covering all the bases.

Quite apart from timing issues, the film relies on some seriously weak characters. Ray starts out as a down-on-his-luck opportunist who sees everything as potential business and actually has a few conflicting perspectives that could be interesting to see played out. However, soon after the start of his involvement with McDonalds, Ray shifts closer to the cliched, selfish and mad-with-power business ideologue that we’ve seen done too many times to still be interesting, no matter what repertoire Keaton can bring to the role.

Laura Dern’s Ethel gets very little screen-time and spends all of it lying in bed looking concerned and/or mad with Ray. Patrick Wilson makes a brief but insignificant appearance, and B.J Novak brings his experience from The Office t the conniving Harry Sonneborn that does very little to spice up the story. By far the most interesting characters are the McDonald brothers who have an attractive attention-to-detail and brilliance about them that balances well with the light-comedy that Lynch and Offerman bring to the roles. However even they are limited by bad pacing and poor characterisation at the script level.

The Founder has a strong opening act that sets you up for a film of empty promises, and whilst the story is certainly interesting enough to keep you watching, its rhythm, pacing and characters can't follow suit.

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