|'The Founder': The Original Hamburglar|
|By Michael S. Goldberger, iBerkshires Film Critic|
02:53PM / Friday, January 27, 2017
|Michael Keaton plays washed-up salesman Ray Kroc who sees gold in those arches.|
'I think my father would have enjoyed John Lee Hancock's "The Founder," an enthusiastic account of how Ray Kroc, a previously failed salesman, turned the McDonald brothers' pioneering, fast-food restaurant into a worldwide phenomenon. But while he would applaud the title character's passion and persistence, he'd have something to say about his arguable ruthlessness. While dad, like Roy Hobbs in "The Natural" (1982), liked a buck as well as the next guy, he didn't believe that business and integrity were mutually exclusive items.
Daniel Goldberger, generally a man of few but well-chosen words, turned loquacious when we had company in the form of a business associate he knew in Europe before WWII. "How did he do it?" was the question that fascinated him, whether discussing a successful trucking company owner as he had been, a chocolatier like two of his 14 brothers and sisters, or perhaps a chubby pot-and-pan manufacturer who, they might chuckle, had a very pretty wife. Point of disclosure, it's accepted lore that the family business gene skipped over me to my gallerist daughter, Erin.
Dad was into the systems of it, the ingenuity, the all-too-rare heroism of honest business. Hence, he would have an ethical bone to pick with Kroc, superbly styled by Michael Keaton. Still, you could also make a slightly sympathetic case for the hamburger king if you consider the great hunger for success his past failures had instilled in him. Act 1, Scene 1, unlike Arthur Miller's ultimately tragic Willy Loman, Ray Kroc wasn't even a successful traveling salesman in his youth. His days were spent on the road in rejection, his lonely nights in fleabag motels.
But if it's true that success is usually spawned from what we learn in failure, then Kroc, who originally hailed from Oak Park, Ill., had plenty of education in that area. Informally studying diners, drive-ins and dives long before Guy Fieri took to glamorizing the better ones, Kroc suffered the lesser examples' shortcomings: specifically, long wait times for poorly prepared food that inevitably arrived lukewarm. It sadly went on like this until, lo and behold, like in the storybooks, inspiration presented itself. A less ambitious mind might have missed it.
It gets you thinking what you might have done, and wondering if you ever passed up such a seemingly divine signal. For when Kroc, the heretofore unsuccessful milkshake blender salesman, receives an order for not one but six blenders from San Bernardino's Dick and Mac McDonald, he isn't content to take the paltry commission. Nope, he gets out the map and makes a beeline for that first McDonald's eatery — a clean, shining example of gastronomic efficiency.
The juicy epiphany unfolds. Sitting there on a bench in the California sun as throngs of excited families sidle up for their much anticipated, gustatory delights, Kroc imbibes his first hamburger and it's a financial bonanza at first bite. Whether it's artistic license taken by screenwriter Robert D. Siegel or not, when Mac comes out to tidy up the lot, Ray extols, "This is the best hamburger I've ever eaten." Thus the history of how the world eats arrives at a watershed, and whether or not you like fast food, you sure could go for a Big Mac.
Practically out of breath with enthusiasm, Kroc sells the brothers on franchising their restaurant. Fastidious fellows, they had previously demurred for fear that their Speedee concept, featuring a custom, production line kitchen, would be compromised by scurrilous, quick-profit seekers. But Kroc, summoning a super-salesmanship previously dormant and unexpressed, convincingly allays their fears. Fast forward and the golden arches span from sea to shining sea. However, business being business, it isn't long before his aggressive tactics puts him in Dutch with the brothers.
It is at this juncture, where Keaton personifies the moral dilemma Kroc must sidestep in favor of his grandiose dreams, that we realize the strength of his Stanislavski-imbued portrayal. While Keaton has received his share of accolades, including a Golden Globe win and an Oscar nomination for "Birdman" (2014), here he fully flourishes his thespic instrument. He personifies the Great American Rationalization. Which means, while it's not downright dishonest, it's not quite kosher either. No character played by Gary Cooper or Jimmy Stewart would approve of it.
If it were set to music, director Hancock's film could be the operatic exemplification of the business ethos that has spurred the growth of this nation from the early capitalist incantations of Colonial clergy to the currently creeping, all too readily employed, end justifies the means. But all that subtextual philosophy is only there for those who enjoy the movie equivalent of two all beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles and onions on a sesame seed bun. Otherwise, on a much simpler, ketchup-only level, "The Founder" provides rather tasty food for thought.
"The Founder," rated PG-13, is a Weinstein Company release directed by John Lee Hancock and stars Michael Keaton, Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch. Running time: 115 minutes