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Movie Review: The Founder


The Founder is something of a biographical docudrama, telling the story of Ray Kroc, the man who founded McDonald's as we know it today. The golden arches have become embedded in popular culture as the McDonald's empire has supplanted itself in countries around the world. Adapting its menu to suit its market, the Big Mac giant has certainly drawn its fair share of lovers and enemies from health gurus to documentaries like Supersize Me. One thing's for sure, this brand is here to stay, making The Founder a fascinating behind-the-scenes tour of its origins, bringing a curious business case study to life.

Kroc may have passed on, but the gregarious spirit of entrepreneurship and persistence has been documented in this brand's coming-of-age tale. Much like The Lego Movie, you'd imagine that McDonald's would be punting its own product and using this film as a marketing tool. Apart from the nostalgia of the original McDonald's store and ethos, the constant references to McDonald's or the retrospective heydays, the branding experience becomes secondary to the actual story. It had to do this to come across as a credible drama and to lure actors like Michael Keaton and directors like John Lee Hancock.

The casting of Keaton is a boon to the drama. Having made a sweeping return to form on the back of Birdman and Spotlight, he's regained much of the respect he lost as an actor over the last two decades. His trademark quirks make him unpredictable and constantly surprising, the sort of currency that actors like Robert Downey Jr. have been trading on. While not as charming as Downey Jr., this fuzzy and divisive demeanor works for him in the role of Ray Kroc. Originally, a milkshake blender salesman, Kroc's sheer determination ties into the values of the American dream and makes him admirable from a Capitalist standpoint.

"It's all about cutting costs, ribbons and ties."

Yet, The Founder isn't a feel good drama about a little guy making the big time. It's a story about a little guy becoming "the Man". His questionable "business is war" strategy made Kroc ruthless like many corporate back stories. From the lowly ranks of ambitious salesman, he recognised the company's potential and channeled his tenacity into the enterprise taking it from local to national in a short space of time. The Founder deals with this chapter in the history of McDonald's from Kroc's perspective. His devil-may-care attitude underwrites his dogged swagger and compels this film on the back of a well-balanced performance from Keaton, whose charming smile makes way for a sinister sneer.

The film benefits from strong production values as we're given a less romantic depiction of the golden age of burger joints and American diners. Authentic cars, wardrobe and scenes transport us to the days before fast food and faster lives when American values centred on family and white picket fences. It's refreshing for its drivethru of American pop culture. Hancock finds a balance between extrapolated product placement and worthy coming-of-age drama, yet there's an ugly hollowness to The Founder as we're forced to identify with the villain. Much like Jobs and The Social Network, we're dealing with a success story that has been tainted by the backroom politics. This undermines the overall enjoyment value and explains why Oliver Stone made Gordon Gekko a supporting character in Wall Street.

You can appreciate the film's fine qualities, the authentic backdrop, the sincere performances and the intrinsic value of the strategic management case study, yet there's no escaping the mixed feelings and emotionally unsatisfying spirit it engenders. The Founder doesn't glorify or condone its lead's smug and cutthroat nature, yet this film's moral compass doesn't appear to have a true North. Trying to excavate the true story without taking sides, makes it seem resigned to a "that's life" standpoint. This safe tack makes it seem more objective and while The Founder doesn't sympathise for Kroc, it becomes hardened to the point of being callous and emotionally distant.

The bottom line: Callous