Film Review – The Founder
Knowing only of director John Lee Hancock‘s history of treacle-infested biopics (The Blind Side, Saving Mr. Banks) and next to nothing about McDonald’s “founder” Ray Kroc, I walked into The Founder sure I’d be seeing a sparkly piece of glorified Americana. And while the sock-hop soundtrack and shock of pastels would further lead to me this conclusion, I was surprised to learn at the halfway point that we’re instead expected to enjoy the polished retelling of the life of a ruthlessly conniving huckster.
The shift is jarring and, unfortunately, not in tune with the swelling soundtrack and tacked on title cards. Are we meant to sympathize with Kroc (Michael Keaton), a womanizing money-grubber willing to take down anyone and anything in order to succeed? (Is it a coincidence I’m writing this with the inauguration ceremony open on a separate tab?) Hancock himself seems unsure, but packs the film with enough good performances to occasionally distract from the imbalance.
We open in 1954, as Kroc drives from diner to diner, attempting (mostly unsuccessfully) to sell milkshake makers. He seems more content sipping Canadian Club and listening to self-help records in dingy hotels than re-connecting with his clearly unhappy wife (a tragically under-used Laura Dern). Michael Keaton is perfection as Kroc, doggedly trying to convince various establishments that he holds the stainless steel answer to all of their problems. Once he receives an order for a whopping 8 machines, Kroc high-tails it thousands of miles across the country on a hunch.
The moment he lays eyes on McDonald’s, a labor of well-engineered love created by brothers Mac (John Carroll Lynch) and Dick (Nick Offerman), his eyes turn to dollar signs. See, prior to their creation, the concept of “fast food” was generally unheard of. To point, Kroc, after marveling at the speed in which the line is moving, is baffled at the lack of plates and silverware. This is new territory. New, exploitable territory.
The dynamic between Mac and Dick is the true heart of the story. They personally engineered a method (or “the speedy system” as it’s repeatedly referred to as) to success and have taken great strides to protect it. A previous foray into franchising was quickly squashed after Dick concluded the other restaurants were not up to snuff. He is a man of standards, which makes it all the more heartbreaking once he’s reluctantly convinced to drink up Kroc’s snake oil.
Bringing Kroc’s story to the big screen presents some problems, though. He’s a charmer, no question. So much so he’s able to swoop in and steal an investor’s wife without the film condemning his actions or even pondering them. I’m always happy to see Linda Cardellini pop up, and her characterization of Joan is at least more fleshed out than Dern’s, but am I really supposed to be left with a smile when she leaves her husband to huck powdered milk on a grander scale? The biopic formula, while happy to harp on salacious details, usually provides the protagonist redemption. There are exceptions to this, of course. The Wolf of Wall Street‘s Jordan was a slimeball, but at least Martin Scorcese‘s intentions were clear. Hancock has a pretty muddled vision here and, as watchable as Keaton is, the whole thing left me feeling kinda icky. (Insert comparison to eating McDonald’s here.)