Last year ‘Duke of the Diner’ Jon Cross and I set out to follow our series of Woods and Weller podcasts with a series on Caine and Keaton. There was no real method behind this choice, other than they’d both done some interesting 80s pap, both endured hard times before being rejuvenated, and were both called Michael. (Mostly it was the name thing). This is part of that series.
The Founder is a frustrating watch, which is strange when it boasts so many delicious ingredients: the script’s from Wrestler writer, Robert D. Siegel; Keaton’s stomps about in the lead role, unleashing Betelgeusian ticks and twitches; and it has probably the defining story of rampant American capitalism to tell. Why then, does this thing fall flat as a squashed patty, complete with foul pickle-y aftertaste?
Well, for starters, it’s too long. It’s a fatty hauling its girth puffing and panting though the middle 60 minutes, so tedious it’s enough to make you cry out for a montage. Much of the flab appears to serve no purpose other than to help the movie qualify as a serious awards contender: you can almost hear the incredulous producer weighing the script in his palm: “I paid for a Best Picture and I expect a Best Picture. Supersize this thing right now!”
So it all tastes bland as hell: Laura Dern is fantastically wasted as Keaton’s put-upon wife: the rejected remnant of his former life. This is well worn stuff, but had the Director and screenwriter bothered to give her some agency she might have discovered some nutrition in the role. As it is, she’s starved.
Other fine actors are tossed more promising meat: Nick Offerman and John Carol Lynch are wonderful as the original brothers Macdonald, and their sequence explaining the success of their restaurant is by far the best moment of the film. After they are relegated from the story, things slide downhill fast. And largely that’s because we’re left with Keaton.
In many respects his performance is excellent, but after spending time with the brothers it’s a wrench to know we’re leaving them behind. Keaton does his best, but there is little to like about his character, or enjoy in following his financial scrapes and fiendish scheming against the brothers.
In many respects it’s a fascinating case study of writing oneself down the wrong road: I can imagine Siegel chuckling with delight as he penned the brothers ‘creation of the restaurant’ scene - and then sobbing at the thought of the 60 minutes left to write. I’m not sure what the answer would be: the story drives us into the brothers’ arms, makes us love them and then…snatches them away. It reminds me of William Goldman talking about the challenge of Butch Cassidy, only here the ingenious solutions eluded Siegel – as it would most, without an entirely different approach.
This is a pity: there is a great story trying to get out here: the tale of 50s America, a land of fresh laid freeways, big, beautiful cars and boundless promise succumbing to exploitative greed, while genuine enterprise and invention are put through the mincer. It would be nice if a tentpole Keaton movie had taken full advantage, but try as he might it’s a homogenised affair.