Friday, January 20, 2017


Opening this weekend:

The FounderNear the beginning of this chronicle history of the McDonald’s empire, we get a look at the hamburger stand in San Bernardino, California that started the chain. It’s 1954, and a long line of customers are waiting for a burger, fries and a Coke. We’re seeing it through the eyes of Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton), the underachieving Midwestern milk-shake machine salesman who’s visited hundreds of dreary drive-ins, diners and dives and knows he’s stumbled on to something big here.

Some might see this scene as the thrilling origin of a great American success story. Others might see it as the chilling start of a sci-fi horror film, like the moment that the zombies or the alien pods start to spread soulless conformity—Invasion of the Franchise People.

It’s both, of course. For better and worse, this is no minor episode in the history of America, or indeed of the developed world—as a friend of mine noted recently, it’s unlikely that most of us have ever met anybody who has never in their life eaten at McDonald’s. The makers of The Founder know this, and they go about their business with breezy speed and humor but, quite rightly, without irony.

Kroc, a hustler who’s never found quite the right hustle, talks his way into a job franchising the chain on behalf of the brothers Maurice “Mac” McDonald (John Carroll Lynch) and Dick McDonald (Nick Offerman), New Hampshire natives who had gone west in search of fortune. According to The Founder, the genial, conciliatory Mac and the quiet, wary purist Dick were just trying to run a good quality, profitable burger joint, but with the system he had designed—limited menu, choreographically precise preparation, ridiculously rapid service—Dick had essentially invented fast food.

The film tells how Kroc turned this concept into a third locus for American communities, alongside the city hall and the church—Keaton gets a ripe speech describing Kroc’s vision of the Golden Arches taking their place alongside the flag and the Cross in towns throughout America. Within a few years, he’s on his way to realizing this, and he’s also at war with Mac and Dick, who are still in control of the brand and slow to approve any of Kroc’s innovations.

The director is John Lee Hancock of The Rookie and The Blind Side, working from a script by Robert D. Siegel, the former Onion writer who scripted The Wrestler. There are lines and moments that hit a sour note in terms of period—the phrase “family friendly” somehow didn’t sound like 1954 to me, for instance. But I liked how conflicted Hancock and Siegel seem about their protagonist, an admirable entrepreneur and a selfish, hubristic S.O.B. at the same time. About midpoint, Kroc, who’s not too happily married, falls in love at first sight with the wife (Linda Cardellini) of a man with whom he’s doing business. The tension between the Norman Rockwell wholesomeness of Hancock’s style and the complex and unsavory sexual and economic subtext makes the scene really uncomfortable—and really interesting.

It’s doubtful that any of this could have anywhere near the same charge without Michael Keaton. He deploys his usual manic star persona, the jumpy guy who turns his bouncing-off-the-walls patter into a constant, disarming self-parody. But here he shades it to a character that’s not altogether likable, and he’s no less vibrant and riveting for that. 

PatersonThe title is the name of the setting—Paterson, New Jersey, home of, among other notables, the great modernist poet William Carlos Williams. It’s also the name of the hero (Adam Driver), who works there as a city bus driver and is also a poet—a contentedly unknown bard, jotting carefully-turned lines in the driver’s seat before his shift starts. As he composes, his verses (actually written by Ron Padgett) appear onscreen.

Jim Jarmusch’s idyll traces a week of this fellow’s pleasant routines—waking up in the mornings next to his gorgeous wife (Golshifteh Farahani), walking their jealous bulldog in the evenings, hanging out in a local bar. He witnesses a bit of minor drama here and there in the course of the week, and responds to it perfectly, and he himself suffers one painful but entirely survivable disaster.

As usual with Jarmusch, the hipster pose and the comic stoicism of the style help the whimsical sentiment to go down more easily. The movie is suspiciously rose-colored in its view of the heartsease of an unknown artist with a working life. Paterson (the guy, not the town) doesn’t require literary fame, because he’s vanity-free, and every other benefit that fame might bring to a person of moderate habits—comfort, stability, a beautiful and adoring lover—he already has.

It seems, in short, a lot like a famous person’s daydream of happy creative anonymity. But it’s such a serene and lovely daydream, and Driver is so sweet, that you’re likely to be drawn in.

When Paterson and his dizzy, cuddly wife go out to the movies, it’s to a revival showing of the 1932 masterpiece Island of Lost Souls, and as they leave, Paterson notes—very accurately—that his wife resembles the Panther Girl (Kathleen Burke) from that film. Who wouldn’t want some version of this guy’s life?

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