The Founder (2016) / Drama
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for brief strong language
Running Time: 115 min.
Cast: Michael Keaton, Nick Offerman, John Carroll Lynch, Laura Dern, Linda Cardellini, Patrick Wilson, B.J Novak
Director: John Lee Hancock
Screenplay: Robert D. Siegel
Review published January 21, 2017
Set primarily in the 1950s, we find Ray Kroc (Keaton, Spotlight) is a struggling traveling salesman trying to peddle an electric milkshake mixer that promises to spark sales by increasing the supply by shortening the wait time involved with having to churn out one milkshake at a time. Sales are not going well, until he receives one big order from someone he hasn't spoken to directly.
Sensing an opportunity for more business with this mysterious buyer, Kroc travels out to the source of the order in San Bernardino, California, where he meets Dick (Offerman, Hotel Transylvania 2) and Mac McDonald (Lynch, Jackie), the owners of a bustling burger joint called McDonald's, which prides itself on offering a great product at a low price served hot and fast in an assembly-line process that recalls the innovation of Henry Ford. When Kroc sees the setup, he can't help but think they couldn't make money hand over fist by franchising restaurants just like it from coast to coast.
A solid acting ensemble graces The Founder, with Keaton as charismatic and engaging as you'd expect in the lead role as the ambitious salesman who has been rattled by a few too many doors slammed to the face to not try to milk a golden goose for all its worth when he finds it. As directed by John Lee Hancock (Saving Mr. Banks, The Rookie), The Founder may lack for artistic flourishes, but it does tell its story with a good deal of well-paced energy. Hancock knows that the personalities involved are probably the more interesting attraction of the Ray Kroc story, as well as our inherent interest at seeing how the most ubiquitous franchise restaurant in the world sprung up and took over into nearly every community in a relatively short amount of time.
If there is one thing that I do feel that Hancock and screenwriter Robert D. Siegel (Turbo, The Wrestler) could have done better, it's the transition of Kroc from a sympathetic and down-and-out salesman to scheming, unscrupulous company owner. A case could certainly be made that greed and power changes a person, but the story arc feels abbreviated to the point where his sudden turn from having us root for underdog sales guy Kroc to recoiling as he becomes bullying real-estate conman, especially as he applies the screws to the two brothers who care the deepest about their company, seems jarring as presented.
He even has the chutzpah to call his new company the "McDonald's Corporation" and to call himself the "founder" of it, recalling the film's ironic title. Whereas recent efforts like Nightcrawler, The Big Short and The Wolf of Wall Street, provided similar stories about those who would do anything for money, power, fame and women, the central characters were also deeply flawed, emotionally insecure, and amoral; Kroc is just an average guy with a dream until he finds success and then becomes a lecherous villain.
Although some might feel that the film seems to work secondarily as a commercial for McDonald's, it does tell the story warts and all, and there are no McDonald-land characters or modern-day slogans that make an appearance at all within the film, relying on older designs allowed by "fair use". Nevertheless, it is hard to not want to partake after watching so many characters rapturously take a bite of a burger hot off the grill.
The Founder may lack for incisive commentary on the story of American success and it may lack an overarching theme from which to propel its narrative, but as a collection of moments about how a man with gumption drive himself from near bankruptcy to possessing one of the greatest corporate empires on Earth, it's never uninteresting, even without politicizing it into something worthy of debate. Kroc goes to a variety communities to learn what they all have in common -- the flags of government buildings and the crosses of the church -- and he envisions the "Golden Arches" of McDonald's to be situation right along with those venerable symbols.
In these times, when we've elected a salesman to be the leader of the free world, perhaps these explorations are the commentary, these stories on how salesmen have become the heroes to admire, corporate logos have replaced our symbols of worship, and how those of us with family and community values are losers because we refuse to compromise a few core principles in exchange for almighty dollars. The Founder may not have a great deal to say about Kroc one way or another, but it really does cynically speak volumes on who we've become as a people when money is the only attribute that matters.
©2017 Vince Leo