Producer: Don Handfield, Jeremy Renner and Aaron Ryder
Director: John Lee Hancock
Writer: Robert Siegel
Stars: Michael Keaton, Nick Offerman, John Carroll Lynch, Laura Dern, Linda Cardinelli, B.J. Novak, Patrick Wilson and Justin Randell Brooke
Studio: The Weinstein Company
How appropriate that “The Founder” should be opening on Inauguration Day. While John Lee Hancock’s account of how Ray Kroc built the McDonald’s empire of fast-food hamburger joints may not be as edgy as it could have been, it doesn’t sugarcoat the fact that the guy was a bullying BS artist who didn’t hesitate to stab others in the back in pursuit of his own ambition—sort of like other people in the news nowadays.
Even the title of the movie is ironic. Once he’d become a titan in the business, Kroc portrayed himself as the founder of McDonald’s, but while he created the corporation, he essentially stole the concept and the name. As played by Michael Keaton, back in his more manic “Birdman” mode after the relative restraint of “Spotlight,” Kroc is first met as a down-on-his-luck salesman hawking new-generation milkshake mixers by driving around the Midwest and visiting drive-in joints to persuade their owners to buy the machines—with little success. When he learns that one place in Santa Barbara has ordered six of the devices, he’s incredulous, and drives out to California to see what sort of operation could be requiring that many shakes.
It turns out to be the first McDonald’s, run by brothers Dick and Maurice (Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch)—a unique operation, in which the menu is limited to burgers, fries and drinks, the food is prepared with spit-and-polish speed and automation, and the service is quick, with customers standing in line to place their orders and receiving the food in paper bags rather than having it delivered—after a long wait—by carhops. Kroc is amazed at the model, and—having failed, we later learn, at earlier schemes—sees it as his key to the success his “positive thinking” phonograph records have been preaching to him. “Franchise!” he says to the brothers, who reply that they’ve tried that without success, since their franchisees have never been able to maintain the high standards that they, sticklers in every possible respect, demand of any place that bears their name.
Eventually Kroc persuades them that he’s the man who can oversee expansion while maintaining their principles, and the three sign a supposedly binding contract. Back in Illinois, Ray is initially as demanding of franchisees as his partners are of themselves, and eventually develops a sense of how to choose couples who will give the job their all too. But while he successfully grows the chain, he becomes increasingly conscious that the contract he signed brings him little personal profit. His irritation grows when the McDonalds refuse to renegotiate, or to go along with a suggestion he receives from Joan Smith (Linda Cardinelli), the voluptuous wife of one of his wealthier franchisees (Patrick Wilson), to save money by substituting powdered milkshakes for ones made from scratch. The fortuitous arrival of financial guru Harry Sonneborn (B.J. Novak) turns the tables, leading Kroc to remake his business model and transform the business into a real-estate colossus that he controls. By doing so he will effectively freeze the brothers out, eventually driving them out of business. In the process he will also dump his long-suffering, supportive wife Ethel (Laura Dern) and marry Joan.
“The Founder” is a movie that aims to have its cake and eat it too. On the one hand, it presents Kroc in a decidedly unflattering light: by the close this is a man for whom a promise sealed with a handshake means absolutely nothing, and who prints business cards identifying him as the founder of McDonald’s though he obviously wasn’t. And while Nick and Maurice might seem picky to the point of obsession on occasion, they were the ones who stood for the principle of using only the finest ingredients in their food—something that Kroc and his operation certainly moved away from.
Yet at the same time you sense that writer Robert Siegel and Hancock have a not-so-sneaking admiration for the guy as the embodiment of the American Dream writ large, somebody who does whatever is necessary to realize his ambition. When Kroc, egged on by Sonneborn, gets the upper hand, drives Maurice literally to collapse and then makes the brothers an offer they can’t refuse, the movie is so constructed that many in the audience will chuckle appreciatively, agreeing with the proposition Ray represents—that if you want to win in the dog-eat-dog world of capitalism, this is the way you have to play the game. And after all, had he not done what he did, the McDonald’s empire would never have been created.
The duality is mirrored in Keaton’s performance, one of his strongest. At times he comes across as almost pitiable in his despair that everything is stacked against him and he can’t get a single break. But elsewhere he becomes a real shark, while still offering a suggestion that he regrets being the predator. Keaton manages to meld the two parts of Kroc’s personality into a whole that’s at once off-putting and strangely attractive. Whether that was true of the real Kroc is a matter of speculation, but it’s the perspective the filmmakers take.
On the other side of the ledger, Offerman is prim, precise and unnervingly officious as Dick McDonald, while Lynch brings an appropriate air of gregarious enthusiasm and naïve befuddlement to his brother. Dern is perhaps a mite too hangdog as poor, misguided Ethel, and both Cardinelli and Wilson are somewhat undersized as the Smiths (though anyone would pale beside Keaton), but Novak and Kate Kneeland as Ray’s loyal secretary hold their own. The technical side of things is thoroughly pro, with cinematographer John Schwartzman bringing a bright sheen to the ostentatiously period sets and costumes fabricated by production designer Michael Corenblith and costumer Daniel Orlandi. Editor Robert Frazen keeps things moving at a sprightly pace even through what are essentially monologues, and Carter Burwell contributes a score that often wittily comments on the action. (The use of “Pennies from Heaven” at one point is an especially deft touch.)
Neither hatchet job nor panegyric, Hancock’s clever film allows viewers to make up their own minds about Ray Kroc, whom Keaton brings vividly to life in a positively protean performance. One thing is certain: no souvenir of this movie will ever be found in a Happy Meal.