What this movie has? Well… It has an excellent and flawless cast. One of the most entertaining parts of the film was the frequent population of so many known faces in almost every scene. No matter how big or small. It was as if only the best character actors had been cast. Everyone performs well even though some actors are cast against their type particularly a meek Nick Offerman and a quiet and powerless Lura Dern as Ray Kroc’s housewife. It was good too to see some well known faces being cast into greater roles. Notably, for me, B.J. Novak from The Office and Linda Cardellini from Freaks and Geeks.
That said the movie is fun and interesting but ultimately unrewarding. The story is at its most interesting while it covers the McDonald’s brother’s initial development of their speedy burger system and restaurant setup. The plot and pacing then suffers as the focus turns more fully back and onto Michael Keaton as Ray Kroc. The movie then seems a little lost as to how to portray his increasingly unethical behaviour. In the third act the movie misses beats as Kroc’s personal life changes as his wealth and power increases. The movie has set itself up as being about Kroc’s journey from struggling salesman to fast food mogul but can’t really maintain the audience’s sympathy. Told in this way the character development struggles and Ray Kroc’s financial rewards and success feel unearned and the true-life resolution of the film an anti-climax. Meanwhile much seems to be left out or glossed over. The film ends as the McDonalds corporation is beginning to expand across America and only hints at the coming international cult of Ray Croc as, in the closing scenes, he practices a speech addressed to Ronald Reagan.
Little context is given for what Ray Kroc means when he urges the McDonald brothers to ‘do it (franchise their business) for America’. The movie doesn’t’ explain that Kroc was a staunch republican and thought that the export of American burgers could help in the fight against communism. This kind of partisan view is carefully kept out of the film as if it is seeking to appeal to everyone even as it tells the tale of ‘the founder’ essentially stealing his business from the McDonald brothers. While the movie is fine, very good even, and extremely watchable, well-acted and well shot it may have worked better if it had concentrated solely upon the origin story of the McDonald brothers as they developed their business where too it needn’t have had to skirt around or lessen certain events. Also, it had been that story and their initial journey it could have coincided with a changing America in the fifties through to the sixties and seventies. Instead these cultural changes were actually minimised and ignored in this film. Of course, too, by the same token a whole other film could have been made about the latter period in which Ray Croc takes over and the modern international colonial style expansion of the modern franchise. Both or either of these films could have been great. This film though which seeks to encapsulate these two very different stories and time periods does its best but cannot help but feeling disjointed and so too also, unfortunately, powerless in its portrayal of all parties and events.
One of my guilty pleasures is that I love biographies. It’s a guilty pleasure because so many biographies are either bad, boring or unnecessary. But I try over and over. It began when I read Jackie Chan’s biography at a young age. Admittedly Jackie Chan’s story is reasonably interesting and, by comparison, a lot of other biographies are boring even, or despite, interesting subject matter. But the unexpected highs and lows of Chan’s story started something for me. And like any gambler who wins on their first try I’ve continued to search for the same reward. Yet it’s often difficult to gauge what will and what won’t be a good biography. Those who produced the most interesting work may have had dull lives.
Sure, though Phillip K Dick had an uninteresting life? Considering his fiction and Its breadth and influence. But really Dick’s life was remarkably mundane and this could easily have been a bad biography. He married several times, did very few drugs in general but lots of amphetamine in particular. Didn’t really travel or interact with other authors. He wrote, a lot, though arguably only some of it was great and much of his output, like his life, was merely mundane.
Nonetheless this is perhaps the best biography I have ever read and, I’d wager, will ever read. Carrère tackles the subject with a true passion and interest as well as the innovation of providing his own dramatization of events so that the book resembles a work of historical fiction. The book is built heavily upon facts and events but embellishes otherwise undocumented events in Dick’s with some conceit to fiction. Carrère delves deep and even in the mundane sections is innovative and relates Dick’s work and day to day existence to the world events and the rise and fall of the sixties counter-culture such that this book is about far more than merely the life of a prolific writer. The book is about philosophy, modern history, the birth and development of early modern science fiction, the nature and demands of creation, the counter-culture and its expectations and limitations as well as mental illness and the rewards and pitfalls of recognition.
It’s a sad book. Carrère tells the tragic life of a man who’s work touched, and continues to touch millions of people through the continual reprints of his novels and TV and movie adaptations. The book is not afraid to show the depths to which Dick fell and that he died lonely and confused and paranoid. Convinced to the end that he was trapped in just the kind of situation that he had written so much about. And Carrère in this work is not just providing us with the life of Dick, a genius. He is also asking what happened. At which point did the fiction consume and derail the writer and become his reality. Could he have been saved? Should he have been saved? Can he really be considered a hero or a genius when he was also seemingly so doomed and powerless? The book cannot provide answers to any of these questions. Nonetheless it does provide that perfect and poignant life and times story I’ve valued so much ever since my first taste.
This is the first and so far, only Phillip Roth book I’ve read. Controversial at the time of publication (1969) for its depiction of masturbation, bodily fluids and obscenity. It’s relatively tame by modern standards though some would argue otherwise (including this Guardian article). The writing is solid, especially for a first novel, but I found it from a modern perspective bereft of controversy and so the book serves more as a well-done writing exercise in the (now) well known trope of Jewish neurosis. The book is narrated as one long monologue through the central character of Portnoy. While reading, I assumed this novel was a small side journey from Roth’s more serious works in the same way that Gore Vidal wrote Myra Breckinridge and Mailer wrote Barbary Shore. Although looking at the publication dates it seems as if Barbary Shore was a similarly early work of Mailer’s and so perhaps Gore Vidal was the only one making side-journeys while the other two were evolving as writers in these their earlier, lighter books. Or perhaps I’m completely wrong in my idea of Roth and all his writing is similar to this, but that’s a realization for another day.