Stars: Michael Keaton, Nick Offerman, John Carroll Lynch, Laura Dern, Linda Cardellini, B.J. Novak, Justin Randell Brooke, Kate Kneeland, Patrick Wilson | Written by Robert D. Siegel | Directed by John Lee Hancock
Is there a more American director working in film than John Lee Hancock? He’s covered the Alamo; yanked Republican heartstrings in The Blind Side; and in Saving Mr. Banks he went to Disney World. Now he turns his attention to another great American institution: McDonald’s.
Michael Keaton, employing every tic and smirk at his disposal, plays Ray Kroc, a struggling salesman scouring the Midwest, desperate to offload his milkshake multi-mixers. Disillusioned by bad service and lengthy wait times, he happens upon a highly successful burger joint run by brothers Dick and Mac McDonald (Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch). Through years of planning and experience they have perfected a system of fast food before it’s even a thing.
Ray is enraptured. He sees a franchise opportunity – and Dick thinks it could be a chance of him realising his own dream. At first, anyway. Kroc works quick, striking deals with disenfranchised entrepreneurs, keen to realise “an overnight sensation thirty years in the making”. Gradually a gulf opens between Ray and the McDonald brothers’ visions. Ray wants out of his contract. He’s going to fashion McDonald’s in his own image, whatever the cost – and the cost is high for all concerned.
Ray is a loner, isolated by his insatiable ambition. He occasionally visits home, but his long-suffering wife, Ethel, just isn’t on the same page. He talks of married “teams”, both reaching out to her and chastising her. For the franchise, he hires business couples; people living lives he longs for. Keaton is ideally cast – no one else captures fragile smugness the way he does. As Ethel, it’s a thankless role for Laura Dern, playing almost a literal ball and chain.
Although there are times when The Founder comes across like a visual Wikipedia article pieced together with screwball editing, Robert D. Siegel’s script does well to focus on the story’s main strength – namely, the conflict between Ray and the McDonald siblings. It’s a war waged over telephone, and there’s an amusing running joke about who will hang up on whom. The film never loses sight of the irony that the inventors of the “Speedy Service” are being outrun by a business growing too fast.
Ray steals the limelight in every situation he’s in. His drug of choice is a self-help vinyl on positivity – the kind of aggressive self-belief in getting whatever the hell you want, which inspires a bullying mentality. The most tense and sinister scenes occur when Ray meets Rollie Smith (Patrick Wilson, who does smugness pretty well himself) and doesn’t just fall for the other man’s wife, he stalks her like prey.
There is a clear moment, when Ray meets a particular business associate (played with uncanny valley confidence by B. J. Novak), that the pendulum swings fully his way both financially and ethically. And the skilful pacing is such that it takes you by surprise: this man, whose confidence seduced you once, has become a monster as inflated as the ballooning franchise he’s spawned. “If you can’t beat ‘em, buy ‘em!” is his new mantra, its viciousness somehow defused by that cheerful Southern delivery.
Let’s close with a contrived McDonald’s metaphor: The Founder tastes great while it’s there, even if it isn’t an entirely filling meal. As with Saving Mr. Banks, Hancock has a disarming lightness of touch which can feel like the cinematic equivalent of easy listening. And like Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, the film seems not quite critical enough of its antihero to fully satisfy as a modern fable. But it’s a smart, handsome, smooth operator of a movie, which if nothing else reminds us that the biggest behemoths often stand upon the shoulders of small, decent people.
The Founder is out in cinemas on 17th February.