Mediocre movies. Where do they go wrong? Surely no one sets out to make a movie that has almost nothing to recommend it, and it’s hard enough to get a movie actually made, let alone released in theaters, that when you come across something like this, the overriding question becomes nothing about the content of movie itself, but more: how did this happen?
This film, about how flailing salesman Ray Kroc saw the genius of the McDonalds concept and then set about wrenching the business away from its founders, only to claim the name and profit for himself, could have been like The Social Network, about a man whose genius lies in stealing an idea from others and screwing them out of any stake in it, or it could have been about a sociopath so driven by the American need to succeed, that he is driven to actions bordering on crime. Or it could have been about the financial pressures of that time in America, and even though we are so tired of deconstructing “The American Dream,” that would have at least been something. But what we get instead is a movie which, for whatever reason, seems too afraid to be about anything.
Michael Keaton is Ray Kroc, unsuccessful salesman of various products, to the extent that he is the subject of gentle ridicule from his friends and is regarded as a bit of a skeeze. He hears of a business that is doing well in California, and drives across the country to see it. He finds a drive-in that has reduced its menu to only what people order: burgers, fries, Coke and milkshakes, and has maximized food production so that it can deliver orders in 30 seconds. Also, it eliminated the dining space, and eliminated all plates and utensils, so there is no cleanup. The movie does an okay job of explaining why these innovations were revolutionary at the time. Ray forces his way into a deal to franchise the business to more locations, which he will oversee, from the two brothers who founded it, played by Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch, both excellent (and it should go without saying that Keaton is also excellent, although one can only imagine how excellent he would be if the film had a decent script).
But this is a movie that becomes lame as you’re watching it, not afterward. Keaton goes home to find his wife, played by the always-welcome Laura Dern. But the middle class appearance of his house, and that he and his wife are members of a tony local dinner club, comes as a shock, as up until then it seemed that Kroc is quite desperate and barely getting by. Is he living beyond his means? That would be interesting, but is not explored. Then Dern’s wife character is also a huge mistake. She is obviously unhappy, but never articulates her reasons why, leaving her to simply stand there making pained faces. In one scene, she greets Kroc excited with a new prospect, but he says he’s already moved on to something else, so she stands there saying nothing, but making pained faces. It is a challenge to denote a character who suffers in silence, but watching her literally suffer in silence does not work. You need some verbal element—even if Kroc had complained to someone else that his wife just hangs around making unhappy faces, we would have some context in which to view her behavior. Offerman and Lynch as the two founding brothers are similarly underserved, as is, ultimately, Keaton himself.
The movie has a very strange, very slow movement, as though it is struggling through molasses. Several shots are held longer than they need to be, as if simply by LOOKING at something we will intuit something from it. That approach CAN work—I’d argue the removal of voice-over from Blade Runner allowed us time to think about its visuals, but it had a LOT of other information making those visuals meaningful—but this film is lacking any kind of definitive structure and has no interest in developing characters other than Keaton’s [who also remains frustratingly opaque]. It has great actors and a great story, but the script and direction are sorely lacking.
The culprit, I am suggesting as an educated guess, is probably the McDonalds corporation. I would describe this movie as the story of a sociopathic unsuccessful salesman who unapologetically makes himself a billionaire by screwing two brothers out of their original business idea and appropriating it for himself. The description of the film in IMDb is: “The story of Ray Kroc, a salesman who turned two brothers’ innovative fast food eatery, McDonald’s, into the biggest restaurant business in the world with a combination of ambition, persistence and ruthlessness.” Can you spot the difference?
We’ll never know what really happened to this film, and due to its being such an overwhelming piece of mediocrity, we’ll never know, because no one cares. Too bad for the actors, although I suppose they got paid.