Directed by John Lee Hancock | Written by Robert Siegel | 115 min
Movies about people achieving the American Dream are as old as Hollywood itself. Here’s a fresh one telling another rags-to-riches tale. You probably know the name Ray Kroc as the guy from McDonald’s restaurants. The Founder tells Kroc’s whole story, and also the story of the two brothers who gave the world-conquering fast food franchise its name. It’s a fascinating yarn, and maybe not since The Social Network has a film presented its lead character so sharply as both its hero and its villain.
In the 1950s, Kroc (Michael Keaton) was just a milkshake mixer travelling sales guy. It wasn’t until he met Dick (Nick Offerman) and Mac (John Carroll Lynch) McDonald that he got really inspired. At their California hamburger stand they’d perfected a speedy system of food prep so customers could get their meals in a fraction of the time of the usual joint, with a mass-production line that still managed to maintain quality. The McDonald brothers prided themselves on that standard, and it took a lot of fast talking from Kroc to get them to cede control to his dreams of McDonald’s across the land. But they did, and Kroc went back to Illinois, to Michigan, to Minnesota, and he worked his ass off to sell this idea. He mortgaged the house under his wife’s (Laura Dern) nose, eventually figuring out (with the help of BJ Novak’s business whiz) that he should be in the real estate business rather than the burger-making business. Allof this, naturally, brings him back to the brothers and the limits of the contract they have together.
This is a deeply political movie. In the first two acts it thrills in Kroc’s pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps individualism. It’s clear-eyed about Kroc’s fast-talking smarm, but frames it as adorable and red-blooded. It takes some heavy shots at the 1950s country clubbers, revelling in Kroc’s connection to the working class joe. It presents women as trophies for the successful businessman—probably not a far cry from a role many women played in the 1950s—but it also serves up one of Hollywood’s most talented actors, Dern, as the most thankless, colourless unhappy wife character we’ve seen in ages. Why she decided to take the part is a mystery—there’s nothing there. Though Offerman and Lynch are both typically good, this is entirely Keaton’s film—he’s more animated as Ray Kroc than he’s been in the 30 years since his Night Shift, Beetlejuice, and Clean and Sober heyday.
If you’re a believer in the joys of the free market, you’ll probably see The Founder as a hero’s journey. But as it rolls—a little slowly in some places—into its final act, there’s also plenty of evidence to suggest that Kroc was a conniving douchebag, willing to shank his erstwhile partners for the sake of a buck.
Is the picture saying that honesty and decency are incompatible with big business? Is the picture, arriving as it does on the day of the inauguration of Donald J. Trump, actually about how America sold its soul, its personality, its healthy relationship to food, and even its government, to a corporate mentality that puts the American Dream itself out of the reach of most people?