“What have you ever come up with ?!”
It’s difficult to imagine that at one time, a meal at a McDonald’s was actually a quality experience. Where the people behind the counter were attentive to the service they provided, and the owners saw customers, not dollar signs. Sadly, those experiences are from a time long past, and the man to blame for that is Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton). A local staple in San Bernardino, California, ran by two brothers was turned into a global force through the sheer cunning of a failed salesman. Kroc had no ideas of his own, but by coasting off the reputation of others, he creates a lasting legacy.
Ray Kroc’s history prior to McDonald’s is decidedly mixed. Multiple deals have left him broke and constantly on the road, leaving his frustrated wife (Laura Dern) at home. His latest job selling machines that make multiple milkshakes simultaneously is similarly unproductive. That is, until a burger place in California calls in an order for six of them. Convinced that this must be some sort of mistake, Kroc heads to sunny San Bernadino.
Once there, he doesn’t just find a burger stand, but a golden goose. While Dick (Nick Offerman) and Mac (John Carroll Lynch) McDonald show Kroc around their Henry Ford styled kitchen-line, you can see the salesman’s irises replaced with cash registers. As they reminisce about their days as struggling restauranters, Dick and Mac can come off as stern in regards to their process, but the McDonalds are simply protecting their dream. At first, Kroc offers to help Dick and Mac franchise their operation, but that offer quickly turns out to be unsatisfying. Where the McDonald brothers are content with their little operation, Kroc sees a lucrative market just begging to be tapped. Kroc begs the brothers to let him bring McDonald’s from coast to coast. But not for his own motivations, Kroc tells them they have to “Do it for America.”
Director John Lee Hancock is a veteran of previous true stories like The Rookie, The Blind Side, and Saving Mr. Banks. So as tempting as it would have been for Hancock to gloss over Kroc’s shortcomings, the director is unafraid to let Keaton twist his mustache for a little villainy. The Founder is unabashedly from Kroc’s point of view, yet it also leaves a place for Dick and Mac to do more than just be figureheads in another man’s biopic. Lynch and Offerman’s portrayals of the McDonalds imbue the siblings with a humanity reserved for leads. They think that they’ve found their happy ending, but Kroc shows them that they just cut to the credits too early.
Ray Kroc is known as the man who founded McDonald’s, but he stole his business away from the men who literally created it. Robert Seigel, who wrote The Founder, has compared the project to The Social Network and There Will Be Blood, and while the grand trajectory of all three subjects would lend a resemblance to this film, Kroc is much more mundane than Daniel Plainview and Mark Zuckerberg. He didn’t get to where he was by talent of any kind, just fierce persistence. The same persistence that his motivational record insists will make him a hero.
Hancock, paired with lenser John Schwartzman, chose to shoot scenes fantastically bright, coupled with upbeat, retro music creating a favorable impression of what’s happening onscreen. Some may take issue with The Founder for not directly taking Kroc to task for his bullying, but such a move leaves room for nuance. Those cheery moments feel like the film was produced by the corporate burger behemoth that we know today, but then Carter Burwell’s score slides in between your ears and lets you know that the toothy grin Keaton flashes should be interpreted as a warning.
Michael Keaton has excelled as fast-talking swindlers before in Clean and Sober, but Kroc actually believes in the inevitability of his own success. It’s not quite as psychotic as Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood or Jake Gyllenhaal in Nightcrawler, but it still causes unease. Not all detestable characters sneer. Some evil is just as benign as a failed milkshake maker salesman that sees an opportunity to become a “self-made businessman” by stealing someone else’s idea.