The Founder (2016)
He took someone else’s idea and America ate it up.
It’s been a real treat watching Michael Keaton go from strength to strength, the 65-year-old veteran delivering a couple of supersized performances in 2013 and ’14 respectively with Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) and Spotlight. This time, however, Keaton has his eye firmly set on the gold as he steps into the hefty shoes of Ray Kroc, the larger than life Illinois salesman who turned McDonald’s into a fast food empire by stealing the company right out from under its idealistic owners, Dic and Mac — the McDonald brothers. A strong character study that interweaves themes of the American Dream and 20th century America — Kroc going on to become one of the major drivers of ’50s culture and beyond — The Founder is more focused on capitalism as opposed to cheeseburgers, the flick somewhat ‘humanizing’ the omnipresent global fast food chain.
Set within the years 1954 to 1961, the optimistic Elvis Presley era that saw the birth of modern day suburbia, along with the rise of the ‘car culture’ — what, with the spread of interstate freeways and roadside motels — the entire country enjoying a post war boom. Enter unscrupulous salesman Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton) who’s trying to make a living for himself as a roving salesperson for Prince Castle Sales. Considered as something of a joke amongst his peers, we meet Ray when he’s lugging around a five-spindle Multimixer (used for making milkshakes at drive-in hot spots), traveling across the American Midwest, barely scraping by, constantly jumping from one ploy to the next.
When one restaurant, in San Bernardino, California, orders six (no, make that eight) mixers, Kroc assumes that it’s a mistake, the struggling businessman trekking all the way out West to clear things up. There he encounters brothers Dick (Nick Offerman) and Mac (John Carroll Lynch), the purveyors of a thriving hamburger stand, McDonald’s. After learning of their ingenious setup — the brothers reducing their menu to best-selling items only, then concocting a system to make them as efficiently as possible — he becomes fixated on their little stall, Kroc convinced that it has the potential to explode. Begging for an opportunity to franchise the eatery, the brothers hesitantly give Kroc a chance, even after informing him of their failed attempt to do so in Phoenix. Opening his first McDonald’s near his Illinois home, Ray raises capital by mortgaging his house without consulting his glum long-suffering wife Ethel (Laura Dern) — who just wants to settle down with her friends at the country club or travel — the pair’s relationship clearly under strain due to Ray’s (implied) drinking and regular absences on the road.
Everyone loves a good underdog story; therefore it’s easy to feel sorry for the unkempt Kroc at the start of the film, when we see him ‘grinding it out,’ so to speak (which, ironically, is the name of his autobiography), the 52-year-old desperate to prove his naysayers wrong. Similar to Mark Zuckerberg in David Fincher’s The Social Network (2010), Michael Keaton breaths life into this polarizing figure who’ll stop at nothing to succeed. Heck, even when Kroc’s nastier side does come out, it’s hard to root against this Hamburglar thanks to Keaton’s mac-nificent performance and the character’s steadfast ambition.
Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch portray Kroc’s partners and eventual adversaries, the McDonald brothers. Nick Offerman embodies Dick, the younger, clean-cut, more inventive of the pair — Dick being the one who designed the legendary golden arches in an effort to make their store stand out — the funny-man shedding his iconic Parks and Recreation (2009) mustache for the role. Likewise, John Carroll Lynch, Gran Torino (2008), is a delight as his older brother Mac, the easy-going front-of-house sibling who deals with staffing and payroll, the duo complimenting one another nicely. There’s a mouth-watering sequence (quite early on) that details the brothers’ history, the creation of the first ever McDonald’s and their streamlined kitchen, all over an insightful dinner conversation with Ray — one of the flick’s most fascinating bites.
Partly inspired my Mark Knopfler’s song ‘Boom, Like That,’ the tasty screenplay, prepared by Robert D. Siegel, The Wrestler (2008), is essentially presented from our driven anti-hero’s point of view, director John Lee Hancock, Saving Mr. Banks (2013), trying his utmost to avoid vilifying Kroc or glorifying the McDonald brothers. Be that as it may, The Founder might be hard to swallow for some, particularly those who have beef against big business corporations, the film playing out like a twisted sorta parable, one where greed and scheming ruthlessness win the day, with the little guys whose focus on service and quality is smushed by both profit and expansion. Just like America’s new president-elect Donald Trump, some may view this story as a rousing triumph, while others will see it as nauseating.
The Founder is also careful in its depiction of McDonald’s itself, Hancock constantly reminding viewers that the billion-dollar brand was built on excellence (two brothers who wanted to make good, affordable fast food for families), the flick brimming with shots of folk snacking on delicious paper-wrapped burgers or slurping down cool, refreshing cola — and while, sure, the McDonald’s Corporation has every right to be concerned about the film’s warts-and-all exposé of Ray Kroc, the final product should come as a welcome sigh of relief.
While The Founder doesn’t venture anywhere particularly new or innovative, this somewhat straightforward narrative is enhanced by a winning post-WWII setting, production designer Michael Corenblith, Apollo 13 (1995), taking us back to the period’s jaunty, nostalgic rock ‘n’ roll vibe, each frame gleaming with a sweet dab of ketchup. Likewise, the supporting cast are scrumptious, too, chiefly B.J. Novak, Inglourious Basterds (2009), who renders Harry J. Sonneborn, a smarmy financial whiz who advises Kroc that the true power of entrepreneurship lies in real estate, whilst the delectable Linda Cardellini, Daddy’s Home (2015), is magnetic as Joan Smith, the younger wife of franchise-holder Rollie (Patrick Wilson), the Midwest blonde giving Kroc a nifty cost-cutting idea to aid in keeping refrigeration overheads down, her proposal going against everything that the McDonald brothers stood for.
A nice change of pace for filmmaker John Lee Hancock, who has made a career out of directing uplifting real-life biopics, The Founder stands as an absorbing look into the ‘unofficial’ American credo (being successful at any cost), the movie offering a frightening glimpse into the world of Ray Kroc, an entrepreneur who lied, manipulated and cheated to get to the top, the flick highlighting the reality that McDonald’s would have never become the powerhouse it is today if it weren’t for his slimy intervention. And oh, as for the film’s mistitle, it plays on the irony that Kroc was never actually the founder of McDonald’s, even though he would often site that he were, the self-proclaimed ‘creator’ basically rewriting the company’s history after acquiring it. What a kroc!
4 / 5 – Recommended
Reviewed by Mr. Movie