It feels eerily appropriate that The Founder is being released nationwide on the same day as the presidential inauguration. It’s a film that serves as both a necessary history lesson and cautionary tale about the beginning of big business and modern consumerism, a concept that could potentially continue to dictate our political climate more than it ever has. Politics aside, The Founder is also a highly entertaining rush of popcorn Americana– light, enjoyable, dramatic fare. A tasty biopic, but one that may not sit well after you leave the theater, a little bit like the restaurant it focuses on.
The Founder, directed by John Lee Hancock, follows not the foundation but the expansion of McDonald’s into modern cultural ubiquity. Ray Kroc (another winning performance from Michael Keaton), a traveling milkshake machine salesman, finds his business stalling until he receives an unusually large order from a restaurant in San Bernardino, CA called McDonald’s, run by the eponymous brothers Mac and Dick McDonald (John Carroll Lynch and Nick Offerman). Kroc, fascinated by their innovative methods of delivering food in an instant, convinces the brothers to let him expand the business through franchising. Soon, Kroc’s obsessive quest for success knocks the brothers out of the company and leads McDonald’s to its current corporate domination.
The story of McDonald’s is inherently fascinating to watch unfold (though especially now considering the current affluenza rampant in American politics). It is a saga that most consumers are ignorant to, despite being the origin of one of the most recognizable symbols of American culture. Thus, it provides a rather gripping tale of competing definitions of the American dream. The warring visions of Kroc and the McDonald brothers establish a revealing dichotomy of old and modern business, and consequently old and modern America. Conceptually, these ideas are rich and compelling. Narratively, the film is quite compelling as well. A lot of this can be attributed to Keaton’s nifty casting as Kroc. Slimy, but nimble as a lizard, his performance is quite magnetic.
But while the historical story is subjectively enthralling, it’s hard to call The Founder a great movie. It is a highly competent film, but far too methodical. It’s central conceit, putting Kroc as the main role, proves to be perhaps it’s greatest flaw. As an anti-hero, his character doesn’t work because there isn’t much he’s been given in the film to make us like him. He’s greedy. He’s sleazy. All he does is take without much to lose and succeeds without much complication. Everything written into the film seems intended to forward Kroc’s success and, in turn, the plot. If the supporting characters don’t participate, they are unceremoniously dropped out of the film (i.e. Laura Dern’s depressingly two-dimensional role as Kroc’s first wife.) Some characters exclusively speak blunt exposition. BJ Novak’s role as Harry J. Sonneborn – the first president of McD’s – is literally only inserted to explain McDonald’s real estate business. One can only wonder if the film focused on the McDonald brothers, who actually have an emotional character progression, if that could have made The Founder more effective (because at least they have a soul). But, like in the film, they sell out too, perhaps unintentionally, for something flashy… just like the Golden Arches at night.
The Founder is rated PG-13 for brief strong language. Runtime of 115 minutes. Now playing at The Landmark.