Screenwriter and Director clash to the film’s absolute detriment in The Founder, which is stuck between being a cynical condemnation of nationalistic opportunism and a rousing tale of capitalistic courage.
Writer Robert Siegel’s script is a quiet, cynical tragedy that aims to take apart the idea of the so-called “American Dream” that has been the basis of many a film, novel, and, most importantly, political speech of the last 200-odd years. Hard work, persistence, idealism – these are the things that lead to success, the things that led so many people from so many places to flock over to the streets paved in gold. This is what America was founded upon – a desire to be the best, to be a truthful and successful nation untethered to the nominal bad guys across the sea.
But Siegel looks at that idea, and he pulls out the word ‘success’. He turns it around in his hands, and he pulls it apart. Is success contingent upon living up to one’s ideals, or making the most money? Was the US revolution really based off a desire to good by its people, or was it basically a violent act of tax evasion?
Is the ‘American Dream’ about success through nobility, or nobility through success?
The Founder subversively follows a man who truly believes in the latter. Ray Kroc is an opportunist, through and through. In fact, though his behaviour changes, his character remains static. He never stops being a man whose greatest need is upwards mobility, regardless of morality. He’s a salesman, and his biggest product is himself. And, despite his state at the beginning of the film, Kroc is damn good at it, and that’s why he knows how to tap into a grander sense of purpose to his bring the McDonald’s to his side.
“If you won’t franchise for me, do it for America.”
That’s what he says at about the 30 minute mark, after comparing the McDonald’s arches to courthouse flags and church steeples, and Siegel’s script is built around that line. Siegel conflates capitalism with patriotism, and nationalism with only empty gesturing at idealism. Siegel’s script punishes those who cling to a sense of communal heart, but he is absolutely on their side. In this day and age, this time of Trump, the idea that how tall you stand is directly related to the depths of your pockets is horrifyingly believable. And so, on paper, this is a tragedy, the death of idealism disguised as a success story.
Hancock does one thing really right in service of these ideas. The Founder is directly built on a foundation of artifice, and Hancock highlights this at every turn. From the audition-like monologues delivered to the camera to the bright, dead interiors. Half the performances (the salesmen) are performed with utmost theatricality (Keaton excels both here and in the brief instances where he shows his broken soul – only when he’s alone or standing on someone’s throat), while those on the other side of the line are done in a real, grounded fashion (Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch play off each other incredibly well as the McDonald’s brothers, giving subtle suggestions of fraternal intimacy).
Where Hancock falters is, essentially, everywhere else. For a a film whose script is so directly analogous between patriotism and capitalism, Hancock rarely highlights the relationship visually. McDonald’s itself, with the exception of the golden arches, is never given any iconic consumerist imagery. Compare this to Larry Cohen’s 1985 consumerist satire The Stuff which, even when its satirical aims missed by a lot, made you believe in the power of its titular product. The evil dessert in that film had branding that popped, that had power and pull. The Founder can’t even muster a level of booming iconography for a real product. The burgers, the shakes, the fries, the doors, the arches – they all needed to swell, swell with the pride that a nationalist pride can inspire – but it all feels flat.
More importantly, Hancock’s tone is completely antithetical to the script’s message. Hancock treats the whole enterprise with a strange, folksy admiration. He seems to think he’s making a film about the inspiring triumph of an American dreamer, a film whose swelling, corny score presents such moments as Kroc offering to buy off the McDonald’s brothers with a rumble of gleeful awe. “Just look at this guy,” the direction seems to say, “look at the way he’ll do whatever it takes to achieve his dream.” Which is, frankly, a bit disturbing.
John Lee Hancock took a tragic condemnation and shot it like an underdog sports film. And so The Founder feels like a picture arguing with itself, never entirely sure who it is. That’s a huge bummer, because Siegel’s script is something to admire, a powerful and timely statement about the decline of a political system. Maybe Hancock accidentally read a different script.
P.S. Somebody make a list of movies that end with the song “Spirit in the Sky”, because I’m tired of it.