As briskly paced and entertaining biopics, the 2015 “Joy”, which can now be seen on HBO, and “The Founder”, playing now at multiplexes everywhere, have much in common. They are celebrations of an entrepreneurialism seemingly at odds with the sense of “carnage” alluded to in Donald Trump’s inauguration speech. As rags to riches tales, they hearken back to one of the foundational myths of American capitalism, the Horatio Alger novels of the Gilded Age that would have you believe that perseverance and ambition could overcome any obstacle.
Joy is Joy Mangano, the inventor of the self-cleaning mop that she considered to be the housewife’s savior. She got the idea while wringing out an old-fashioned mop with her hands. After being cut by a glass shard hidden within the mop, the light bulb went on over her head. What if a lever at the top of the mop could accomplish the same task safely by squeezing the cotton strings remotely?
The Founder is none other than Ray Kroc, the man who launched a thousand McDonalds starting in 1954 after discovering the original store in San Bernardino, California that had been started by brothers Richard James “Dick” McDonald and Maurice James “Mac” McDonald. While the film does not mention the word, they had applied Taylorism to the drive-in restaurant business with all its advantages to the employer and imposing all its ills on the employee. In this generally upbeat film, the employees are extras. Fundamentally, the film is about Ray Kroc figuring out ways to push the brothers out of the business while retaining the brand name. At the end of the film, after they have been cheated and cast aside, Dick asks Ray Kroc why he ever felt the need to involve them in a franchise operation. Since he saw the method they were using to turn out burgers and fries as if they were Model-T’s coming off the assembly line, he could have gone ahead without them. Michael Keaton, playing Kroc with considerable flair, tells him that nobody would have gone to a Krocburger restaurant—too Slavic. But McDonalds? That evokes Americana.
The films have a very clever approach. They allow the audience to simultaneously cheer for the lead characters while maintaining a sense of superiority. Much of “Joy” consists of Mangano making a breakthrough at QVC, the predecessor to the Home Shopping Network, a channel that practically defines tackiness.
Making her debut selling her mop on QVC, she freezes up in front of the lights just like Ralph Kramden did in that classic Honeymooners episode when the bus driver stammers helplessly in front of the cameras with the Swiss Army Knife-like Handy Household Helper clutched in his fist. Norton tries to help him out by offering a cue. “Can it core a apple?” (Not a typo!) Poor Ralph Kramden remains frozen like the proverbial deer in the headlights and ends up going back to his bus route on Monday morning, the eternal proletarian loser.