I can imagine a sleazy, slick talking huckster pitching the idea for “The Founder” now: Let’s make a movie about a capitalizing asshole who stole an idea from two entrepreneurial brothers, but let’s wrap it in a sunny package and sell it as a story for the whole family! We’ll remind people how hard work and financial loopholes can help you build an empire on the backs of somebody’s namesake, and we’ll call it a crowd-pleaser. Do you want fries with that too?
“The Founder” is to McDonalds what “The Social Network” was to Facebook, except director John Lee Hancock lacks the irony and social commentary that someone like David Fincher could bring to this material. He’s all wrong for it, and “The Founder” needs more spice and flavor if it wants to be anything but bland.
It’s the story of Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton), the man who founded a hamburger restaurant and made it a fast food giant and an American institution. Kroc opens the film pitching milkshake machines to drive-in diners that don’t want or need them. He’s getting nowhere slowly, and along the road he listens to motivational records about persistence rather than music. When he gets a call from two brothers in Santa Barbara asking him for eight machines, he’s floored.
Awaiting him on the West Coast is the first ever McDonalds. Dick and Mac McDonald (Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch) explain to him their booming business model. Ditch the plates and silverware and the clumsy teenage waitresses on roller skates, and deliver everything FAST.
One review pointed out that “The Founder” never films a shot of people eating their hamburgers as though it was commercial ready. The product placement isn’t shameless here. But Hancock does make the idea of McDonalds in the ‘50s sound quaint and mythical. How astonishing an idea that a restaurant would serve food with no plates! And when Kroc arrives at the Golden Arches, Hancock casts it in all the shimmering light of stained glass windows in a church.
Kroc shills the idea of McDonalds as the purest form of American family values, but Hancock believes it too. It’s in the light, whimsical, folksy score that’s plain insufferable, or the lickety-split joy it takes in showing everyone working in perfect harmony inside the McDonalds kitchen.
On one hand “The Founder” encourages Kroc’s corporate, enterprising spirit, even if he stepped on a few people to get to where he was. At one point there’s a revelation that Kroc isn’t in the burger business but the land business, licensing locations instead of just the brand as a way of maintaining quality control. It’s played as a stroke of genius rather than the first step toward Kroc screwing the McDonalds brothers out of a fortune.
And on the other hand, the film tries to be a proletariat message of the individual working man. He pitches his ideas to the stuffy country club types, but they don’t understand the Middle American vision he’s trying to preserve! Unfortunately minimum wage debates and obesity complaints that these lines of thinking enabled are a few decades down the road and not “The Founder’s” concern.
Keaton plays Kroc with a weird mix of a Marge Gunderson accent and a frog’s croak. It’s a bizarre amalgam of every Midwestern dialect rolled into one. He waves his hands as though delivering a presentation at every moment, and he gets to stare down the camera more than once as though he’s delivering his pitch right to the Academy Awards voting body.
The snake oil he brings to the part would be juicy if the rest of “The Founder” weren’t so tasteless.