McDonalds is such a large part of our life, it’s hard to imagine there could have been a time before it. The Founder takes us back to that time, in an enjoyable biopic starring Michael Keaton. Keaton’s performance is the heart of the film, and although it could perhaps has been more stinging than it tries to be, it’s an interesting picture that dramatizes as much as it condemns.
This film tells the story of Ray Kroc (Keaton), a salesman from Illinois. Following up an assignment to sell milkshake mixers, Kroc winds up at McDonald’s, a burger restaurant in 1950s Southern California, and he is blown away by the speedy system of making the food. He convinces the owners, brothers Mac and Dick McDonald (John Carroll Lynch and Nick Offerman), that there is franchise potential in the fast food business. He pushes to expand McDonald’s throughout America, working himself into a position to be able to pull the company from the brothers, creating a billion-dollar empire in the process.
The Founder is somewhat of a tough sell, in that it’s a biopic that sees an almost fanatic man screw over two brothers who are happy with their lot. That it is anywhere near as enjoyable as it is is down to Keaton’s performance. He exudes charisma and frenzy, and it’s almost enough to make you believe that he has a soul behind his eyes. He’s a difficult character to root for, seeing as he places business above all, and is content to screw over all those who get in his way. And yet, you buy into his magnetism – Keaton sells the manipulation and makes you back Kroc, even as he appals you. It’s an interesting approach – the film loves the character, but it’s horrified by the lengths he will go to.
Kroc really is the lead in this film, and the only other characters who really get a look-in are the McDonalds brothers, but there’s not too much of that. Offerman pays Dick as an officious type, always intending to stick to his original model and angrily disagreeing with all of Kroc’s suggested changes – it manages a nice touch of resonance towards the end when Dick realises that he has lost. Lynch goes through a similar arc, although he is more receptive to the ideas at the start. Really, the portrayal of the brothers is the film’s most devastating touch – we watch as they are robbed and conned out of their labour of love, and their betrayal really hurts (the film employs some close-ups as they process what has happened, to maximum effect).
The film follows a straight-up business model, and perhaps underexplains some of the important bits. The focus on Kroc means that it is somewhat happy to let other parts of the story fall by the wayside. Its approach to the history of McDonalds is essentially a quick slideshow at the start, and it really struggles as it attempts to work details of Kroc’s tumultuous personal life into the film. In real life, he divorced his wife for a younger woman – elements of this appear in the film, but neither woman is fleshed out enough to really make this element worthwhile. Had it just focused on the business elements and the relationship with the brothers, I think it would have been a stronger film.
The strength of The Founder is the strength of the personality of Ray Kroc, as personified by Keaton. Everything else is a little underdone, but the subject matter remains interesting enough to hold your attention throughout. I found The Founder a good watch, even if the morals behind the story may not sit easy with you at the end.
Director: John Lee Hancock
Cast: Michael Keaton (Ray Kroc), Nick Offerman (Dick McDonald), John Carroll Lynch (Mac McDonald), Linda Cardellini (Joan Smith), B.J. Novak (Harry J. Sonneborn), Laura Dern (Ethel Kroc)
Running Time: 115Mins
Image credit: http://leonardmaltin.com/the-founder-is-forgettable/