Director: John Lee Hancock
Starring: Michael Keaton, Nick Offerman, John Carroll Lynch, Laura Dern, B.J. Novak, Linda Cardellini, Patrick Wilson
I couldn’t tell you the last time I stepped into a McDonald’s restaurant. It’s probably been a good two months since I even went through the drive-thru line and that was only because we were traveling. What I didn’t know is that there is a plaque in every restaurant dedicated to Ray Kroc. My husband had to fill me in on this detail. Who is Ray Kroc? Does the average McDonald’s customer stopping in for a Quarter Pounder or Big Mac know the name? It’s easy to take McDonald’s for granted given the speedy service and cheap food. People tend to forget what all went into making the golden arches a reality. It’s not the inspirational/feel-good backstory you may want to attach to it. When you go to the “about” section on McDonald’s website, Kroc’s name is mentioned first before the two brothers who actually started the restaurant.
It was 1954 and salesman Ray Kroc (Keaton) was travelling around the Midwest hopping from one drive-in restaurant to the next. He’s desperately trying to sell a five spindle ice cream mixer for shakes and malts. He’s rejected left and right, but his persistence and determination keep him going. He gets a call that two brothers in California want to buy multiple mixers for their one restaurant. Kroc can’t believe the offer and heads to this little restaurant to meet Dick (Offerman) and Mac (Lynch) McDonald. Their pop up stand is revolutionary and unlike any other drive-in. Customers order at the window and have their food in seconds. The McDonald brothers have a slick operation that they have built from the ground up focusing on speedy service with a quality product all in thirty seconds. All they do are burgers, fries, shakes, and soda and they do it well. Ray is beyond impressed with the brothers’ operation and is dying to get in on the action. He sees great potential for the restaurant and wants to make it into a franchise. As we’ve come to learn, Ray has had many failures in his life but believes that making McDonald’s a franchise will be his saving grace. Dick is far too leery about this as they’ve tried it before and failed. The opposition and fight from the brothers seems to drive Ray into making his own dreams come true even if it’s at their expense.
I’ll admit to being very clueless about the history of McDonald’s. As you can probably ascertain, it’s a fascinating story. At first glance the title seems a bit misleading as you assume with Michael Keaton playing Kroc that he must be the founder of McDonald’s. I was thrown for a loop once Dick and Mac McDonald come into play as it sets up the idea that they actually are the founders, not Kroc. If you go back to the company’s website, it’s carefully worded to show that Kroc founded the McDonald’s corporation. In reality, he took the idea of the brother’s initial restaurant, kept the name, and ran with it turning it into a global empire. The film charts out an all too familiar progression for Kroc and what success and money mean to his working relationship with the McDonald brothers. It asks the never-ending question you face in life about how you play the game in order to get ahead and if there is a wrong or right way to play when the outcome is beyond successful.
It’s in the hands of director John Lee Hancock who has made a career out of directing movies based on true stories, like Saving Mr. Banks, The Blind Side, and The Rookie to name a few. The Founder doesn’t have the emotional weight behind it like those films. Hancock doesn’t seem clear on the tone he wants to give the film. Even the Carter Burwell score felt off balance. Given Keaton’s chops was this supposed to be a comedic and happy success story, was he a dark and selfish person, or does it lie somewhere in between? Hancock doesn’t make it clear if he’s treating Kroc as an admirable character. I waffled back and forth on if I should be rooting for him.
The three main performances stand out and keep this story interesting for someone like me who doesn’t view McDonald’s as a standard part of my life. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. I’m not trying to shame those that rely on it. I can’t imagine anyone else but Michael Keaton in this kind of role. He brings his usual mannerisms and physical attributes to the table with the typical “salesman” type of mentality gently pulling you back and forth on if you’re supposed to like him as a person. There were times where I thought he was channeling Beetlejuice all over again. I don’t think Keaton quite gets the credit he deserves for the physical nature he brings to any character. Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch are also standouts as the McDonald brothers. Both of them give the brothers the traditional, all-American, somewhat naïve disposition. Even though Offerman shaved his Ron Swanson mustache, there’s still feistiness inside him driving him to challenge Kroc’s methods. Robert D. Siegel’s script doesn’t give the rest of the cast enough to work with leaving someone as good as Laura Dern in the typical frustrated wife role. Dern is too good of an actress to sit on the sidelines and only complain about her husband’s job.
The Founder can be looked at as a cautionary tale on how money, greed, and power can blind a person. Kroc risked his marriage, life, and the relationship he had with the McDonald brothers in order to chase his dreams. Did success come too fast for Kroc to keep his head on straight the whole time? Does it even matter knowing the place McDonald’s has in the food industry and the reliance many people have on the company for jobs and food? There were moments in the movie where I was craving their food, but by the end I didn’t come out wanting to run to McDonald’s for a Big Mac.
Is It Worth Your Trip to the Movies? See it for the acting and the history lesson on the biggest fast food chain in the world.
RATING: 3 out of 5 TICKET STUBS