Writer-director Mike Mills was inspired to make his breakthrough film, Beginners, when his own father came out of the closet at the age of 75. For his followup he turns to his mother for inspiration, though the result seems to be much more about himself.
In 1979, Dorothea (a credibly deglammed Annette Bening) is a single mother living with her teenage son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) in Santa Barbara. She owns a rundown Victorian house that she can’t afford to renovate, so she takes in boarders. One of these is Abbie (Greta Gerwig), a young woman trying to get her life in order after a decade of rebellion. Another is William (Billy Crudup), the kind of do-anything guy who makes his own shampoo and who trades construction work for room and board.
Most nights there’s one more person sleeping here, though Dorothea doesn’t know about it: Jamie’s slightly older best friend Julie (Elle Fanning), who platonically shares his bed as a way from getting away from her own difficult family situation. That Julie only sleeps when she sleeps with him is much on Jamie’s mind, as you might expect from a healthy 15-year-old.
Because she didn’t become a mother until she was 40, Dorothea worries about maintaining a relationship with Jamie as he passes through the difficult years. She asks Abbie and Julie to monitor him and act as a generational bridge. Much of this includes her checking out contemporary music in the hope that it will give her some clue: She can deal with Talking Heads, but Black Flag throws her for a loop. “They know they’re bad, don’t they?”
Though she doesn’t seem to know it, Jamie is working just as hard to understand her, or at least women in general. He becomes a devotee of the feminist texts that were filling up bookstores at the time. And everyone in the film, except maybe William, is obsessed with the question: Am I happy?
Plot is not the point of 20th Century Women, which piles on details of its characters’ lives as relentlessly as John Irving. (I am willing to bet that Mills has read The World According to Garp more than once.) I don’t know how much of the story is autobiographical, but I’m not sure that it much matters. It reminded me even more of Almost Famous, Cameron Crowe’s retelling of his teenage years living with a single mother an hour’s drive (in the other direction) from Los Angeles. But where Crowe’s film delivered a portrait of an era, Mills doesn’t seem able to get an overview away from his own perspective of the time. The title is likely to lead viewers into expecting some kind of feminist perspective, but he might as well have called it 20th Century Women and Their Role In My Upbringing. For whatever that’s worth.
The title of The Founder, by contrast, is openly ironic. It tells the story of how Ray Kroc built McDonald’s from a roadside hamburger stand into an operation that is, arguably, synonymous with 20th century American capitalism. But despite his efforts to make it appear otherwise, he wasn’t the founder of the company.
That title is shared by Dick and Maurice “Mac” McDonald, two brothers who first developed the concept of assembly-line meal production. In a post-war era when eating out meant either a sit down restaurant or car service, which was slow and inefficient, they devised an operation that delivered hot food quickly for people to take away. The concept is no so ubiquitous that one of the fascinating things about the film is deconstructing our familiarity with it so that we can see where it came from.
Kroc was a veteran salesman who was eking out a living selling milk shake makers when he discovered the McDonald brothers operation. Though they had tried previously to franchise it and failed, he succeeded in doing so, largely because he was willing to ignore their vision of what they wanted the restaurants bearing their name to do.
Kroc is played by Michael Keaton, and watching him you can’t help but remember the role that made him a star, as the “idea man” who turns a morgue into a brothel in 1982’s Night Shift. His Kroc could be that same guy with a few decades of mixed successes and failures under his belt. But Keaton doesn’t try to make this guy likeable. We may admire his persistence and his foresight, but we’re also glad that we don’t have to sit on the other side of a table from him and his lawyers.
We sympathize more for the brothers (well played by two actors better known for comedy, Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch), but we can’t help but shake our heads in pity when they accept Kroc’s offer by drawing up an iron-clad contract to protect their interests.
And when you see the Weinstein Company logo at the end of the film, you can’t help but wonder how much Harvey Weinstein, who built his fortune by acquiring and selling the work of other artists, saw of his own story here.