Film review – The Founder (John Lee Hancock, 2017)

John Lee Hancock is busily carving out a name for himself as the creator of sanitised versions of the most successful business men in the history of humanity, treading perhaps where no director would dare through a labyrinth of red tape.

In 2013 it was Saving Mr Banks, Hancock’s portrayal of an important segment of Walt Disney’s life as he helped convince P.L. Travers to release the rights to Mary Poppins and shaped the now-classic motion picture. This time around he’s tackling the origins of one of the biggest global brands of the modern world: McDonald’s.

McDonald’s hasn’t had a successful time thus far being portrayed on screen. Outside the overbearing product placement that everybody hates (even though they often pay for significant portions of films), if you ask anyone whether or not they’ve seen a film about McDonald’s, they will more than likely start talking about one of two films: McLibel or Super Size Me. Both are excellent as films and even better in showing the company in an extremely negative light.

Or you may remember this film…

 

The Founder isn’t quite as negative towards the iconic brand as the recent memorable efforts, going a long way to provide a balanced view of the origins of the story. It may be sanitised but it is at least reasonably based on facts (to our best knowledge).

Michael Keaton plays Ray Croc, a driven but unsuccessful salesman who happens upon the first McDonald’s restaurant whilst trying to sell milkshake making machines. This restaurant is owned by Richard and Maurice McDonald (Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch) and they soon go into partnership to franchise the company and start growing it across the rest of USA.

The biopic serves two purposes for the company. Firstly, it portrays the McDonald brothers’ story as being as wholesome and family-friendly as any of the McDonald’s adverts that are create today. This was a family company that didn’t want to be taken over by the global powers, resisting all the way and almost unbelievably against making any profit. Looking at it cynically, it serves as an advert that champions the company’s family values.

Secondly, it portrays the man who turned it into a global power as self-driven, full of business acumen but at his most basic a self-centred, cold and heartless money grabber. We aren’t supposed to like him, though I can’t help but think that the characterisation will be a template for those wishing to succeed in business. I hope not – it would be a poorly-chosen idol.

The overall result is that we don’t feel encouraged to like our central character and it feels like the side of a story that aligns with the global branding message rather than one we can truly enjoy. 

The problem is that Keaton is far too charismatic to not be liked and the Lynch/Offerman duo are sabotaging the success of the company at every turn. This makes the emotional journey slightly skewed as we try to take sides and don’t really know where to land.

Some will champion its subtlety but I don’t see it like that. I see it as a great actor shining through an advertising campaign disguised as a film.

Given the state of the political landscape right now, I don’t think it’s the film the world needs.

Ruggles of Red Gap (Leo McCarey, 1935)

Having recently watched McCarey’s excellent Make Way For Tomorrow, I thought I’d dig below the surface and watch some of his other films. I came into Ruggles of Red Gap nothing about Charles Laughton and the other members of the cast, and very little about McCarey. I have to say that on first impression, I am very disappointed.

Laughton portrays Ruggles, an English valet who is working in Paris but is transferred to America to work for a brash American (confusingly portrayed by Charlie Ruggles). Once in Washington, our valet develops as a character and grows in confidence, going from obedient servant to full independence, eventually deciding to open his own Anglo-American restaurant.

Laughton biographer Simon Callow, in a key bonus feature on the UK Masters of Cinema release, discusses in great detail his opinion on the performance and his disappointment having watched it. In context, he was comparing him to his great performances as the Hunchback of Notre Damme and as Henry VIII, to name a couple. I have not seen these, but I wholeheartedly agree with everything he says. I’d got further – as an Englishman, the whole thing is utterly insulting.

The Ruggles that is portrayed is a bumbling Brit that would leave any aristocratic servant-employer worried for their own safety. Indeed, I’d probably ask for a different waiter if I was served by Ruggles in a restaurant. The portrayal leaves the viewer with an air of discomfort. There’s something going on between his flickering eyes and his awkward body language that made me want to look away. In hindsight, I think it was Laughton’s attempt at comedy. Perhaps it was “of the time”, but it really hasn’t aged well.

That he can’t find any route out of servitude until he goes to America, which is patriotically portrayed here – unashamedly – as the land of the free, is undermining of Britain. With very little knowledge of Laughton as a person, I’m willing to guess that he must have been very anti-British to accept such a role.

The film was hugely popular amongst American viewers and very much not popular in Britain, and for the reasons just mentioned I can understand why. Having listened to Callow speak so fondly of Laughton and McCarey, I’m really keen to seek out something that justifies their enduring popularity. I’ll gladly welcome any suggestions!

Ruggles of Red Cap is available now in the UK on Blu-ray and DVD.