“What we expect from you is honesty, integrity, and team work, making sure you don’t do anything wrong or violate this company’s values,” said he, munching insistently and intently on his paan masala, his brown-stained teeth a messy giveaway of the years of masticated drumming they’d been subjected to. He being the manager in the first firm that I ever worked in and for. Over the years, as I changed companies and fields, there was one abiding joining formality – variations of the rousing welcome speech I heard in my first job. The locations, styles, and formats changed, but the leitmotif remained. And yet, as I walked out of the cinema hall, I wondered, What if the company’s founders had followed this charge-to-corporate-action as they chased their dreams, ambitions, and, ultimately, that gleaming treasure chest of success?
And the movie that caused me to pause and reflect thus was director John Lee Hancock’s The Founder, tracing the true story of Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton) as he leapfrogs from scheme to scheme, dream to dream, opening the movie in 1954 with him selling Prince Castle brand milkshake makers to restaurants. Kroc is frustrated as his actions on the ground don’t simply propel up to his big dreams, his primary travel task being calling up his book-and-office keeper June Martino (Kate Kneeland) to keep abreast of the latest tranche of orders. In one such call, he’s told of a restaurant that’s placed a grand order of six mixers, and curious, he drives down to San Bernardino to see what it’s all about. He sees an enterprise named McDonald’s that’s serving burgers, fries, and Coke in disposable bags and cups, and he places his order, gets it in almost the same time it took for him to decide what to eat. Munching on “the best burger” he’s had, he drinks in the joyous and celebratory atmosphere around him, mothers, children, and families enjoying this swiftly delivered gastronomic miracle. He strikes up a conversation with the owners, Maurice “Mac” McDonald (John Carroll Lynch) and Richard “Dick” McDonald (Nick Offerman), and along with you, is stunned at the sheer ingenuity of their processes and execution.
Director Hancock and writer Robert D. Siegel keep the pace and humor crisp and enjoyable, much as most would find a McDonald’s burger, as Kroc convinces the brothers to let him franchise their brand and store, replicating their process and model. It is this tug-of-war between the McDonald brothers and Kroc that gives The Founder its mayonnaise-like entertainment – smooth, delightfully delicious, and yet not guilty-free, as the pleasure is almost schadenfreude in nature, the brothers pushing back at Kroc at every turn and idea. Serendipitously, Kroc also meets up with Harry Sonneborn (B. J. Novak), a sharp, hawk-eyed financial consultant; he also meets restaurant owner Rollie Smith (Patrick Wilson) and his wife Joan (Linda Cardellini) who express interest in investing in the franchise. There’s also the cleaving of Kroc’s relationship with his wife, Ethel Fleming (Laura Dern), who’s been his pillar of support in their locust years; simultaneously, his ambitions slowly but surely combust with the sparks of Joan’s own desire to make it bigger.
The director keeps The Founder a sunny-side up look at Kroc’s invasion of the McDonald’s brand, the phone exchanges between the brothers and him a marvellous one-upmanship game and of who hangs up the phone first. Even when things get dark, there’s a small glitter of comic touch, and to Hancock’s credit, things never get piteous or weary. In a superbly directed, whiplash of an announcement scene that Kroc makes at the dining table, Ethel’s reaction is one of silence, while the director cuts to a shot of her back through the dining door frame, the only other prop visible being Kroc’s drink glass. Or, the scene where the McDonald brothers meet up with Kroc and Sonneborn, Hancock keeps the drama quotient high, never searingly intense, and yet singeingly impactful.
While Hancock’s in complete focus behind the lens, his cast is fine form too. As the brothers who pride in their local, self-developed process and delivery model, wholesome ingredients, and quiet existence, and then watch it dissolve and morph into a monster beyond their wildest imagination and control, John Carroll Lynch and Nick Offerman are absolutely fabulous. Both actors are marvellous with their eyes, emoting support for each other, helpless anger and grief at the tsunami of change that hits them, and then realizing that the most precious they’re left with is each other. Every scene where they’re conversing in their office and arguing with Kroc is a winner. And the timing in the scene when Kroc takes them out to dinner is a masterclass in dialogue timing as they play off the sentences and sequences, narrating their journey to the “wolf in the hen house” (as Dick describes him to Mac in a later scene.) Laura Dern as the wife who ultimately pays a price of her own is so very good. B. J. Novak does a smooth job of his shark-like approach, his act somehow deploying his machinations in the background without noise.
But The Founder is Michael Keaton’s grand-slam entry into 2017. His performance is a joy to behold, as he reveals perfectly sculpted and toned acting muscles, using them at his supreme will and command. Not once do you feel that he’s acting or portraying a character, just being. His curled lip act is simply brilliant, a manic focus of persistence and eventual ruthlessness, that just keeps revving up and kicking up such a nuanced force of expressions, you want to sign up for a McDonald’s franchise too.
Also adding a beautiful dimension to the project is Carter Burwell’s gracefully loquacious score, lending heft, pizzazz and melodic meat to the story. Using horns, sweetly brushed piano tinkles, bass, string guitars, snazzy percussion, and majestic violins, he weaves a unique story of his own. To me, the best piece is when Kroc drives into San Bernardino the very first time – watch out for this thematic piece, for it’s one of the very finest in background scores – the piano takes the notes forward, then Burwell pulls them back in, the violins gliding along delicately; and then he dishes out such a haunting, beautiful melody on the piano, it’ll melt your heart in a tinkle.
The Founder, then, leaves you (as it did me) with that question as you arrive to work every day – where would we be, if our companies hadn’t followed the truism that Keaton’s Kroc so forcefully propounds? – Business is war. It’s dog eat dog, rat eat rat. One thing’s for sure. The next time you and your family cross the golden arches into instant burger salivation, no matter what you order, this movie will make you appreciate the biggest ingredient of them all that made it possible – Kroc’s one stake, well done and well executed.
The Founder is rated UA (Parental Guidance for children below the age of 12 years). The Indian censor board’s snipped out all swearing, but is still worried you’ll binge on McDonald’s burgers.
Director John Lee Hancock Running Time 1h 55 min
Writer Robert D. Siegel
Stars Michael Keaton, Laura Dern, John Carroll Lynch, Nick Offerman, B. J. Novak
Genres Biography, Drama, History
Watch the trailer of The Founder here: