The Founder Review

It’s hard to believe there was actually a time before McDonald’s. The fast food franchise, like, say, Star Wars, is so ingrained in our culture and utterly ubiquitous as to make you believe it spontaneously arose out of nothing in the exact form you see today. What makes The Founder, the new film from director John Lee Hancock and writer Robert D. Siegel, so appealing is that it takes this omnipotent entity, brings us back to its humble and intimate beginnings and allows us to identify the players responsible for its inception.

Though the film may have been more interesting from the perspective of the actual original founders, brothers Richard and Maurice McDonald (the solid Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch), the player this movie is concerned about is the ambitious, if not ruthless, salesman, Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton). Keaton’s great here, portraying the fast-talking entrepreneur perfectly while constantly reminding us through non-verbal cues of his longing for a better life. The performance suffers only slightly toward the end, though, as his ruthlessness overshadows his ability to inspire empathy from the audience.

When we first meet Kroc, it’s 1954 and he’s a floundering salesman, traveling around the country in a hopeless attempt to sell milkshake makers. He meets with unambitious restaurant owners who don’t buy his aggressive, verbose sales pitches. Kroc’s also disillusioned with the inefficiency and bad service of the drive-in diners that were so popular at the time. This is a man with great perseverance and vision who sees flawed business models like this, recognizes his untapped potential and desires so much more. But he’s far from greatness as he sits in his car, eating a burger and taking swigs of whiskey from his flask, thinking about a brighter future.

It’s around this time he gets a call from two brothers out in San Bernardino, California requesting a whopping eight milkshake machines. He rushes to their restaurant to fill the order and, as if finding a hidden oil reservoir or gold deposit, is astonished at what he sees: high-quality food ready in seconds. It’s an ultra-efficient and innovative kitchen with conveniently disposable packaging and a completely transparent view of the kitchen for the dozens of customers walking up to the window to order instead of waiting in their hot cars.

Soon, he meets the actual founders. Offerman and Lynch are great as the McDonald brothers. Lynch’s Maurice is a kind yet gullible soul, a cuddly bear of man who’s very much open to new ventures and partnerships. Offerman’s Richard is more cautious and serious, focused on quality over quantity and weary of outsiders. Both are convincing as small business owners and brothers. After they give Kroc the grand tour and a history of the business, Kroc is all in and the movie and all its obstacles and intrigue revolve around Kroc’s need to expand the business nationwide, cut costs no matter what, and eventually take over with the help of businessman Harry Sonneborn (a sly B.J. Novak). All this while the brothers, though mostly Richard, provide sharp resistance. We also take side trips back to Kroc’s home in Arlington Heights, Illinois where his wife (the wonderful Laura Dern in an otherwise thankless role) provides resistance as well. She’s tired of her husband’s neglect and incessant chatter about his business endeavors.

The Founder is a fast paced film, full of as much energy as Kroc himself, utilizing quick and clean editing and providing an insider’s view of one of the most iconic and lucrative businesses we’ve ever seen. But much of its problems revolve around the aforementioned resistance from the secondary players. There are several times when Kroc phones the McDonald brothers, sometimes presenting an unpopular idea and sometimes informing them of his latest step in encroaching on their business. These conversations turned arguments are dramatic and funny at first but become tiresome as the movie proceeds. We’re supposed to be feeling sorry for Richard, but after his fifth or sixth stubborn rejection, part of you wonders if he deserved his fate. Dern’s also wasted in this role. She’s too good of an actress to play the neglected wife and this bland side story feels like an afterthought.

There are obvious similarities to other movies, with some calling this The Social Network of fast food. The infighting between business partners and Kroc’s usurping of others’ ideas brings to mind the conflict between Mark Zuckerberg and the Winklevoss twins as well as Eduardo Saverin. And in the later scenes, we see hints of There Will Be Blood’s Daniel Plainview in Kroc who seems to relish in his ruthlessness. For the most part, these aspects of the movie work well. But, unlike in those films, Hancock and Siegel don’t quite dig deep enough into Kroc’s psyche and reveal enough of the man for us to fully empathize with him despite his flaws. As a result, the character feels more like a villain in the end than a solid anti-hero.

What saves the movie are the fine performances from its actors, especially Keaton save for some minor stumbles. Siegel’s fantastic dialogue that both educates the audience about the business, controversy, and history of McDonald’s keeps the film moving at a quick pace despite several formulaic scenes and plot points. The moral ambiguity and the matter of whether McDonald’s would be what it is today without Kroc are also fascinating to think about. In the end, the film is much like McDonald’s food itself: a fairly good product that satisfies but ultimately lacks a superior quality (whether in The Social Network or a 5-star restaurant) and leaves you wanting more.

Rating: 3.5/5 atoms

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Glen Ilnicki
Glen Ilnicki 271 posts

Glen has been reading comic books and playing video games his whole life. His unhealthy passion, however, is for film. He currently resides in Ottawa, Canada.