"The Founder" and "Gold"
Release Date: Jan. 20, 2017
Running Time: 115 minutes
When did the Weinstein Co. lose faith in The Founder and Gold? Both are keenly told dramas about the pursuit of the American dream. And, while their laser-focused go-getters are two very different men who personify unchecked ambition, the films are cut from the same cloth. The Weinstein Co. initially planned to release The Founder last August, perhaps in an attempt to emulate the success of its late-summer 2013 release, Lee Daniels’ The Butler. Then The Weinstein Co. pushed The Founder back to a limited release in December with a wide release to follow on Jan. 20, just one week before Gold’s Jan. 27 opening. The Weinstein Co. clearly had awards aspirations for The Founder and Gold when it scheduled them to open wide on either side of the Jan. 24 announcement of this year’s Oscars nominations. But neither film received enough critical momentum in December to become awards contenders, and the Weinstein Co. appeared to abandon them in favor of putting all its weight behind its Best Picture nominee, Lion. (For the record, the Weinstein Co. did not screen for and did not provide screeners of The Founder and Gold for awards consideration to the Austin Film Critics Association, of which I am a member. The Founder also was not screened for Austin press in advance of its Jan. 20 opening.) An August release last year certainly would have put some necessary distance between The Founder and Gold, but by pushing The Founder into awards season, the Weinstein Co. has forced both films to fight for the same audience. Both The Founder and Gold, though, make for an intriguing double bill that’s not to be missed. Directed by Saving Mr. Banks’ John Lee Hancock, The Founder stars Michael Keaton as Ray Croc, the businessman who turned McDonald’s into the fast-food empire it is today. Directed by Syriana’s Stephen Gaghan, Gold stars Matthew McConaughey as Kenny Wells, a fictionalized version of John Felderhof, the founder of Bre-X Minerals Ltd., which was embroiled in a gold mining scandal in the 1990s. The Founder and Gold open with their respective chosen subject down on his luck. In the 1950s, Croc is peddling milkshake makers from one diner to the next. In the 1980s, Wells is operating his late father’s once-thriving gold-mining business out of a bar. Both see a vision of their future and act quickly to make their fortunes. Croc stumbles upon the original McDonald’s restaurant in San Bernardino, Calif. He is stunned at the equipment and procedures the owners, brothers Richard and Maurice (Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch, respectively), have put in place to ensure they serve good food to its many customers seconds after they put in their order. Despite their resistance to expanding their business, the brothers succumb to the silver-tongued Croc and enter into a contract that allows him to franchise the restaurant across the country as long as he observes their set menu and maintains their high standards for making and serving meals. Wells has a dream about geologist Michael Acosta (Édgar Ramírez) discovering gold in the jungles of Borneo. So he pawns all his remaining valuables, flies off to Indonesia, and persuades Acosta to go to Borneo in search of gold. Wells makes his fortune before Croc. Acosta finds gold while Wells fights off malaria in the jungle. Croc barely makes a profit because the McDonald’s brothers refuse his every overture to make the necessary changes to reduce costs and increase efficiency. At this point, The Founder and Gold test that old saying about how nice guys finish last. The Founder clearly does not see Croc as a nice guy but as a ruthless businessman who refuses to allow the principles of two good brothers to get in the way of his success. We know how things turned out. Croc bought out the brothers so he could serve billions of customers fast food of questionable quality. Granted, when he strikes it rich, Wells gets a bit too carried away with himself, but he remains loyal to those around him—except his long-suffering girlfriend (Bryce Dallas Howard). She walks out on him because she feels he is out of his depth and is going to be taken by the New York investment bankers he’s partnered with to get the gold out of Borneo. Wells’ life quickly spirals out of control when he and Acosta are accused of committing fraud. The actual events surrounding Felderhof aren’t as well-known as Croc’s rise to glory, so there is no need to spoil what happens at the end of Gold. Needless to say, though, Gold ends on what appears to a highly speculative note that serves to a redeem one character in the eyes of another character—as well as in the eyes of the audience. Wells only has himself to blame to what happens to him in Gold. He is, by extension, one of the McDonald’s brothers. He’s too trusting for his own good. Sure, Wells is prepared to defend his business with as much tenacity as Croc does in The Founder, but he can’t see the jungle for the trees. Croc believes in himself, and in order to obtain success, he’s willing to cut personal ties and form new alliances—however temporary—with likeminded people. The Founder director John Lee Hancock and screenwriter Robert D. Siegel positioned themselves to tell the quintessential story about the America Dream from two perspectives: Croc, who is presented as a jerk who can and does make things happen, and the McDonald brothers, two risk-adverse small-town everymen who are done in because they only want and need so much. Our sympathies very much lie with the McDonald brothers, who are played with increasing frustration with Croc by Offerman and Lynch. But they also know they are getting into bed with a snake, one who waits and waits until he’s forced to strike. The McDonald brothers are shown to be naïve and lacking in business acumen. They are resistance to change to the point that they appear to be obstructionists. They don’t even try to cut Croc down to size when they realize he’s taking credits for their deeds and ideas—including claiming he’s the genius behind the iconic Golden Arches. There comes a point when you know Croc’s plans to build a corporate empire means he has to leave behind the McDonald brothers. But, as depicted in The Founder, he does so in a way that is both cruel and vindictive. The final encounters between Croc and The McDonald brothers are uncomfortable in the way he plays them until he robs them of everything tangible and intangible that means so much to them. Money can only buy people like the McDonald brothesr so much. Keaton embraces Croc’s admirable doggedness and personal failings with gusto and turns him into the kind of corporate predator a small businessperson should avoid unless they want to abandon their morals and principles in their bid to make money. Conversely, in Gold, McConaughey is fueled by Wells’ need to be loved and accepted. He takes rejection personally, and he’s motivated by the desire to show those with money and power that he’s got what it takes to be just like them. This, of course, is part of his undoing. He’s so caught in what is going on around him that he doesn’t see what is happening right in front of his eyes. And it costs him dearly. While others around him question Wells’ role in the scandal that engulfs him, McConaughey makes it impossible for the audience to doubt his sincerity and honestly. McConaughey hustles hard to sell us on Wells as the last honest man in America, and there’s no denying he succeeds. He makes us look past Wells’ drinking—and, boy, does he drink—to present Wells as the “get rich quick” guy we all know and like but wouldn’t lend him a dime because we know we wouldn’t get it back. But when he does make it big, we’re happy for him and don’t begrudge him his success, if only because we feel sorry that we never believed in him in the first place. He proved us wrong but he’s still always going to one of us even if he’s now living in a mansion and rubbing shoulders with the Wall Street elite. While Wells knows what he wants, and goes after it with an insatiable hunger, Gold struggles to find the right voice to tell his rise and fall. Working from a script by Patrick Massett and John Zinman, director Stephen Gaghan can’t make up his mind whether he wants to play things straight or underline Wells’ predicament with absurdist humor. The latter would be better, because Wells’ is something of an oddball and his story is often too bizarre to be true. But Gold’s dramatic elements are strong enough to withstand Gaghan’s occasional venturing into American Hustle terrain. The Founder maintains a consistent light tone from start to finish to ensure its accessibility, with director John Lee Hancock slowly raising the stakes with each conflict that arises between Croc and the McDonald brothers. Hancock also has no choice to keep The Founder moving at a brisk pace, if only to keep Croc, a man blessed with forward thinking who never hesitates to take swift action to protect and to expand his business. It’s easier to make the connection to The Founder instead of Gold because it speaks directly to the wannabe entrepreneur inside all of us. It shows us the opportunities before us; the risks that must be taken to enjoy success; and the traps to avoid. Croc is the winner we aspire to be, if only we could retain our decency; the McDonald brothers are the lovable losers we don’t want to be but are likely to become if we surrounded ourselves with people whose ambitions are greater than our own.
Aired: Jan. 26, 2017
Web sites: http://thefounderfilm.com and http://gold-film.com