There’s a good reason why Arthur Miller’s ‘Death of a Salesman’ remains such a touchstone in the American psyche. The national ambition is to sell big (Britain, let’s remember, was accused of being ‘a nation of shopkeepers). In ‘The Founder’ Michael Keaton plays Ray Krok, the desperate salesman who goes from flogging milkshake machines to ripping off the good-natured McDonald brothers as he steals their business from under their noses and destroys the quality of their brand.
But it’s an odd film that one’s tempted to describe as a Trump-era movie, like the ghastly ‘Joy’, which found redemption in the story of a woman selling brooms on QVC. The factual elements are intriguing – the mapping of the diner’s stations on a tennis court, the reasons for streamlining production, getting rid of staff and cutlery – but after that what are we meant to feel about the lead character? Krok is a damaged man with one talent – for spotting that a fast assembly-line for delivering bad hamburgers and powdered shakes is the future. But in the process, much like the junk food he touts, he also becomes unacceptable.
Laura Linney gets the thankless role of his loyal wife, slowly eroded by her husband’s erratic behaviour, and there’s a fine back-up cast, but to what end? The McDonald’s story would be better served in a documentary, for there’s no story arc here, unless it lies in the well-trodden pathway from individual decency to corporate greed.
As a European who has watched cities destroying their main tourist attractions by allowing McDonald’s in (the Berlin Wall and the Charles Bridge in Prague are especially unfortunate in this respect) I can’t cheer on this creep for franchising junk food around the world – but if we don’t find him a hero, what’s the point? Salesmen – and women – with ugly morals are all around us.