Originally published January 23, 2017. The Founder is now available on Netflix Instant streaming.
Overview: Ray Kroc turns a single hamburger stand into one of the most successful business models ever—often at the expense of those along the way who help him. The Weinstein Company; 2016; Rated PG-13; 115 minutes.
American Dreams: Rarely do the trailers before a film factor into its review, but it was impossible to miss something interesting that was happening in the 15 minutes before The Founder began. If film is a kind of projection of our collective psyche, right now we’re awfully anxious. And the studios seem to sense our fear. The previews I caught were about, in turn: Stalin’s 1932 takeover of Ukraine and the famine that followed; the get-rich-quick true story of the Bre-x mining scandal and its fraudulent gold mine; and a heist movie about geriatric pensioners whose moral code dictates they only rob enough money to cover what big banks have stolen from them (please have a Bernie cameo). We’re nervous, but for the price of admission, the studios are offering up parables to allay our fears. Some rally us, some show bad guys getting what’s coming to them, and some, like The Founder, offer up the most American of promises: that if we can just find the right scheme—if we’re persistent—success is just around the corner for us, too.
Persistence is the driving engine of The Founder and scheming, its fuel. Michael Keaton stars as Ray Kroc, whom many remember as the founder of McDonald’s, a neat lie-by-omission Kroc perpetuated. As a traveling salesman, Kroc saw that the drive-in (then the way most of what we now think of as “fast food” was served) was floundering. Service was bad, the company was unsavory, and the food (when your order showed up) was unappetizing. No one, it seemed, was getting it right. But then a chance encounter brought Kroc into the sphere of the McDonald brothers, Dick (Nick Offerman) and Mac (John Carroll Lynch), whose San Bernadino hamburger stand was a marvel of efficiency and consistency. The three partner up and, while the rest is history, Kroc’s name is often the only one that gets recorded in the books.
What’s Golden: If you’ve heard anything about the film so far, it’s likely been the accolades for Keaton, and they’re not wrong. Here he gives a nimble, frenetic performance that would be charming were Kroc not so mercenary. Offerman disappears into his role so completely it’s disorienting (halfway through I had to lean over to my companion and ask “That is Nick Offerman, right?”), though it’s a rush to see his impeccable timing put to dramatic use. Laura Dern portrays Kroc’s long-suffering wife whose instincts in Kroc are heartbreakingly backwards. Turns out he’s a much better businessman that she thinks but a worse husband. Watching her realize this is a process Dern renders both tender and heart-rending.
Director John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side, Snow White and the Huntsman) does a workmanlike job. There’s nothing particularly innovative about the storytelling, but the movie moves along at a brisk clip with an economy and efficiency that the McDonald brothers could appreciate.
What’s Out of Frame: As a story, the film’s closest relative might be The Social Network, another movie with a challenging-to-like entrepreneurial protagonist whose product we all know. Like Facebook, McDonald’s is a global monolith that we nonetheless experience in a strangely personal way. To watch the story of its beginning feels like we’re getting a peek at something intimate, and though you’ll come away with a better understanding of the man behind McDonald’s, the story of the restaurant itself, its meaning and significance, feels conspicuously absent. Dick and Mac McDonald innately knew what the restaurant meant, but Kroc was only concerned with what it represented—a bit of guesswork now lauded and rechristened as branding. Instead of the real thing, we get a simulacrum of it. The Founder sometimes feels this way; the right components are all there, but, you leave feeling vaguely unsatisfied.
Interestingly, the McDonald’s its founding brothers originally envisioned, an airtight operation offering up consistency and serving as a community hub, has largely come to pass, though maybe not quite in the way they expected. Kroc’s vision, too, has come to fruition, with his daydream growing into a near-unstoppable moneymaking machine. Late in the movie, there’s a scene between Dern and Keaton as their characters’ marriage is fraying. She asks him if he’ll ever be satisfied. He answers “no” quickly and without any self-consciousness. In that moment, I felt like I understood Kroc. I just wish the feeling hadn’t been so fleeting.
Overall: A biopic is a deceptively tricky genre. Tell a straightforward story, covering as many angles as possible, and you end up making a documentary. Risk embellishing and the foundation gets wobbly beneath you. So what do you end up with when you tell a story that’s neither hagiography nor cautionary tale? You get The Founder. Well-made and consistent in quality, mostly hits the spot, and pleasurable in the moment. But afterwards, you’re not entirely sure you’d recommend the experience. Maybe it just needs a little time to digest.
Featured Image: The Weinstein Company