Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Jan 20, 2017 7:50 pm 
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Running with a concept

It's hard to know how to take The Founder, the movie focused on Ray Krok, who created the giant fast food chain, McDonald's. Is it fun, or merely instructive? It's compelling, because it never stops, never lets up. You watch it with a kind of numb fascination. It's really like a teaching film about capitalist enterprise, how to become rich starting with almost nothing. MdDonald's is a classic example. As embodied by Michael Keaton, Ray Krok isn't an attractive character, but he's a compelling one; he's a force. He says the way he did it was "persistence." Well, this is the American dream, isn't it? A blooming of capitalism in pure form? It has to have a dark side, but that's hard to discern. And there's humanity somewhere here, but it's not in Ray Krok. We're not supposed to like him, are we? Is this really a movie about people or about a business concept? The relative unimportance of human beings compared to hamburgers is The Founder's strangest, most troubling aspect. It may explain why the neutral, somewhat colorless, but irresistible Michael Keaton is the perfect and essential actor to play Ray.

Nothing about the terrible ills of fast food here; see Super Size Me for that. But we can catch a mild irony in the title. Because though he conceives McDonald's as "the new American church," and becomes the C.E.O., Ray Krok isn't really the "founder" of anything, nor can the chain even succeed financially before the intervention of one Harry J. Sonneborn (B.J. Novak), a former Tastee Freeze executive who runs across Ray in dire financial straits and makes McDonald's profitable by proposing its becoming not just a fast food chain but a real estate chain. And the real founders were two brothers McDonald, Mac (John Carroll Lynch) and Dick (Nick Offerman). They have a fast food restaurant - arguably the first real one - in San Bernadino, California. Ray realizes they have a wonderful, unique concept to attract customers. They've tried franchising, but given up (as they tell it here, anyway) because it's too hard to maintain quality control. Ray convinces them to let him try again. He signs an elaborate contract with them. And eventually he breaks it when he's bigger than then are. They've become a millstone around his neck, with their quality control, their standards. And perhaps, their humanity. Ray is the bad guy; Mac and Dick are the good guys. But the bad guy wins here, and the good guys are the fall guys. That's capitalism for ya.

Ray was a salesman, selling drive-in restaurant owners multiple milkshake makers. As we observe his in-our-face spiel first off, it's intense and effective - except it doesn't seem to convince anybody. The movie doesn't explain how despite all the unsuccessful projects we hear about and the unsold milkshake machines, Krok has a nice house in Illinois, where his wife Ethel (Laura Dern) languishes, and an office and woman manager, June Martino (Kate Kneeland). June will eventually become a McDonald's director, and Ray will divorce Ethel. He constantly tipples; he has a hip flask ever at the ready: that's never commented on either. But what's fascinating is the kernel of the idea that made the great chain. June tells Ray about the order from San Bernardino for eight multiple milkshake machines - for a single restaurant. He can't believe it, so he goes there.

What he finds is genius (or that's how the movie sells it anyway). America in the Forties is the land of the drive-in. But they're not working very well. They attract riffraff. They require a large staff. Delivery of the food to the cars takes too long, and often when it comes, it's not what you ordered. When Ray visits the brothers, they tell how they improved on this. Dick McDonald was an efficiency expert of sorts. The brothers eliminated silverware and dishes: all was served in paper wrappings. In their 1948 redesign, they eliminated the carhops: customers came up to a window, ordered their food, and ate it wherever they wanted to, disposing of their own trash. No delivery or cleanup. Instead, the brothers focused on precisely-honed speedy food preparation - we see them work it out with diagrammed spaces on a parking lot floor with men acting out the various stages of the process. And they've pared down the menu with hamburgers and fries for 15¢ the key offering. It's all prepared so fast, there's no waiting at all. Customers flock to their restaurant. Ray didn't make up the "golden arches" either. The brothers had that design created for them long before he came on the scene.

Does Ray Krok have a life? In theory, but Ethel looks like a waxworks corpse from the start. (This is a pretty thankless role for Laura Dern.) We know she's doomed. Her dream of a good life is one that won't suit Ray: a nice, paid-for house, dinners at the country club, nights out on the town. Ray jettisons the country club and posh retired men when a couple of them take on McDonald's franchises and run them without discipline. He goes to a bingo hall for dinner, and finds working men at Elks, Shriners, and Masons, a synagogue, to recruit hard-working, hungry, ambitious men to run more McDonald's.

Ray runs into a very handsome young restaurateur, Rollie Smith (Patrick Wilson, with a face like sculpted wood), whose wife Joan ("Freaks and Geeks" alum Linda Cardellini) catches his eye. Ray and Joan play a duet of "Pennies from Heaven," and we see what's going to happen later. There's nothing subtle about this movie (except its criticisms of this arriviste's "success story"), but its simplicity is essential to its mood. Joan seals her life as Ray's new wife when she comes up with a key profit-maker: powdered milkshakes. Refrigeration for the ice cream was a big expense that was shrinking the narrow profit margin. In The Founder, it's things like powdered milkshakes that matter more than love. I don't know if I like this movie (not so much). But there is something unique about it, and it's another feather in Michael Keaton's multicolored cap.

The Founder, 115 mins., debuted (obscurely) in L.A. 7 Dec. 2016. Bought and distributed by the Weinstein brothers, it goes into wide US release 20 Jan. 2017. Metacritic rating 68%. It's come out in France, and got mediocre reviews. Télérama's Jérémie Couston wrote that "As always with McDo, it leaves you hungry." Télé 7 Jours wisely notes that Ray Krok is "at once pathetic and seductive."

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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