The Weinstein Company
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten, Shockya
Director: John Lee Hancock
Written by: Robert Siegel
Cast: Michael Keaton, Nick Offerman, John Carroll Lynch, Laura Dern, Linda Cardellini, B.J. Novak, Patrick Wilson, Justin Randell Brooke
Screened at: Park Ave., NYC, 12/7/16
Opens: January 20, 2017
Shakespeare said, “What’s in a name? A rose by any name would smell as sweet.” But even the Bard can be wrong. A rose by the name “garlic” would not smell as sweet (as any psychologist can tell you) because we humans easily connect names with objects. In fact for some businesses like “Heinz” or “Hershey,” much of the profit is due to our recognition and associations of the name. This is true as well about the name “McDonald’s” where on every given day, one percent of the entire world’s population eats there. Why? Because it’s McDonalds. You know what they make and you like what they do. This is something that the real founders of the corporation, now with branches in thirty-one countries, did not realize. Maurice “Mac” McDonald (John Carroll Lynch) and his brother Richard “Dick” McDonald (Nick Offerman) are running a fast-food business in San Bernardino, California. They are ethical people who couldn’t imagine using powdered milk in their ice cream shake. Nor do they get good advice on how protecting the name.
That insight belongs to an ethically challenged Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton), who was not the founder of Mickey D’s but the man who profited enormously from his business acumen. Keaton, marvelous two years ago in multi-award winning “Birdman,” is about equally so now in John Lee Hancock’s movie. His character radiates negative vibrations to many of the folks with whom he comes into contact and will likely convey the same to the audience. Well as they say, it’s more difficult to play the villain than the hero. The villain gets the best lines and is the guy whose performance you’re likely to remember.
Director John Lee Hancock, whose imaginative “Saving Mr. Banks” deals with the author of “Mary Poppins” and her reluctant meeting with Walt Disney, this time tackles Ray Kroc in various guises. We see his relationships with the two founding brothers of McDonalds, with his lonely wife Ethel Fleming (Laura Dern), with financial analyst Harry J. Sonneborn (B.J. Novak) and with Joan Smith (Linda Cardellini) who is the wife of restaurateur Rollie Smith (Patrick Wilson). Robert Siegel’s concise script affords Keaton the power to create a lasting image of the multi-dimensional Kroc.
Kroc, in this film, could stand for both the glories and evils of American capitalism. As for the glories of private enterprise, could you imagine government bureaucrats’ creating the wonders of McDonald’s? And for the latter, how about the ways that the founders get shafted, ultimately, out of $100 million a year?
Now Kroc was not born with the proverbial silver spoon in his mouth. He could stand for the self-made man, hero of capitalism, who starts with nothing and rises to enviable wealth. We watch this frustrated guy in 1954 trying to sell a malted milk mixer that could blend six drinks at a time. The door is slammed by food establishments that could either see no use in it or were more likely to buy the Hamilton machine, which undercut Kroc’s price. His rise to the entrepreneurial hall of fame begins when one fast-food place called McDonald’s and located in San Bernardino, California, calls him to order six, and then eight of the machines. Kroc is determined: he listens enough to a record that impresses on him that persistence (in other words making yourself a pest) is the secret to success. Driving from Illinois to California to deliver the order to the McDonald brothers, he finds a pair of ethical chaps who are afraid to expand, i.e. to franchise, because they think expansion would lead to lower standards as they could not personally supervise the operation.
In a series of combative phone calls with the brothers, Kroc, whose slogan is “business is war,” criticizes the founders for limiting themselves to “your endless parade of no’s, cowering in the face of progress.” Kroc is so single-minded that he barely understands his wife’s loneliness. Their dinners together are virtually silent as Kroc is regularly on the road to pursue his dream. Given that Ethel is a homebody albeit one who is a member of the local golf country club, we are not surprised to see him cozy up to the more dynamic Joan Smith, whom he meets while dining with her husband and who is to become his future partner.
Somehow, though, Keaton does not turn off his movie audience. He is too lovable despite his machinations to get the founding brothers to sign a contract to give him their name for the inevitable growth of the establishment, yet refusing to allow even a 1.9% of royalties. Put into writing instead of a handshake, that would have meant $100 million for the McDonald brothers. A comparison could be made with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, so well illustrated in “The Social Contract” for allegedly stealing intellectual ideas, i.e. ConnectU, from the Winklevoss brothers, the idea which foreshadowed Facebook.
This is a tale of corruption, one which nonetheless may have the movie audience siding all the way with Kroc for the man’s determination to make it big in America. The scenes of the mechanized system of making burgers—automatically applying ketchup and mustard but sorting two pickles each by hand—could whet the appetite. Or at least until you realize that whatever taste the sandwich has on its cotton-like bread is created not by the formerly frozen cheap meat but by the scientifically-measured array of condiments.
Rated PG-13. 115 minutes. © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Story – A-
Acting – A
Technical – B+
Overall – A-