I was infatuated with the concept of John Lee Hancock’s “The Founder”, the story of Ray Kroc and the beginnings of McDonald’s, since it was first announced in 2015. This is partly because I’m a rabid consumer of the fast food giant, probably to my overall detriment, but also because I was interested in seeing how the film depicted the beginning of the quintessential American business enterprise and how it connects that to its characters, visuals and themes.
Basically, I was hoping for “The Social Network” with burgers and fries. But while the film does not even come close to the aesthetic or thematic heights of David Fincher’s modern masterpiece, it still provides an interesting look at the genesis of the fast-food giant, as well as a great showcase for its lead, Michael Keaton.
Keaton’s Ray Kroc is a down on his luck businessman who can’t seem to sell his newest product, milkshake mixers, to any clients, primarily 1950’s drive-in restaurants and diners. But when he gets an unusual order from a small burger joint in southern California, he discovers a revolutionary operation run by the brothers Dick and Mac McDonald (Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch). Smelling a truly historic business venture, Kroc manages to wear the brothers down and let him franchise their restaurant, an endeavor that becomes his only priority in life, taking a toll on his relationships with his friends, his wife (Laura Dern), and his business partners.
The film’s ending should be obvious to any one of the billions of people that have stepped in a building with those golden arches outside, but the initial venture and eventual feuds between Kroc and the McDonalds brothers still provides a fascinating story steeped in the themes of power, greed, and the American Dream.
Hancock is not an inventive director, as the film is shot and staged in basic fashions and edited even sloppier. One extended sequence had me counting all the cuts, and there was basically one every second, which takes away from some of the impact or style a movie like this could have had. Despite this, he does manage to include some instantly iconic images, like Kroc standing in front of a neon-lit McDonald’s restaurant in the desolate Arizona desert at night, the first one designed with the iconic golden arches.
Keaton though, is the centerpiece of the entire enterprise. His gravelly voiced salesman starts off sympathetic, but unravels to reveal a sleazy business mogul content with screwing anyone who gets in his way. He has several scenes where he equates McDonalds as essential to American culture, calling it “The new American Church”, and by the end, Ray Kroc and his corporation are one in the same: Unstoppable products of their country of origin; Kroc driven only by his quest for success, and that success spawning a business empire that never has been and never will be replicated. Offerman and Lynch also play off each other quite well, with Offerman’s Dick being the calculating business half of the duo, and Lynch’s Mac providing the heart and emotion for the two.
Much like the food created by the restaurant the film is depicting, The Founder is standard and formulaic in creation and for the most part doesn’t provide something interesting to look at. But unlike a Quarter Pounder with Cheese, there’s more to The Founder than meets the eye, with the great work of Keaton and an interesting look at McDonald’s beginnings and place in American society providing value for viewers.