Director: John Lee Hancock
Rating: PG-13 (for brief strong language.)
Running Time: 115 Minutes
Release Date: January 20, 2017 (previously released for one week on December 7, 2016)
FilmNation Entertainment, Faliro House Productions, The Combine, Speedie Distribution, and The Weinstein Company.
Written by: Robert Siegel.
Michael Keaton is really pretty terrific in The Founder, a film which got bounced around the 2016 movie release calendar more than a handful of times. Now, after qualifying for the 89th annual Academy Awards last December, the movie unspools across the country in January 2017.
And while it is unclear why The Weinstein Company could not decide on what to do with their latest film, perhaps the fact that this film is about Ray Kroc, the man who brought the McDonald’s fast food chain to international prominence, and not about the legendary restaurant’s history, could be part of the fumbling around. Most people have no idea who Kroc actually is, and therefore, we spend a great deal of time in The Founder’s first half-hour learning how Kroc struggled as a fledgling salesman before a fateful hamburger lunch changed his life forever.
Directed by John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side, Saving Mr. Banks), Keaton is a great choice to embody the scattershot, impulsive nature that Kroc seemed unable to suppress. Always looking for the next big thing to pop, Kroc found his multi-arm milkshake makers rendered obsolete by 1955, based innovations he never saw coming. Early on, Hancock, and screenwriter Robert Siegel, frame Ray Kroc as a man always teetering on the brink of losing everything; he would find something “big”, invest all his chips in it, and ignore or look past the fact that things change and people move on.
With the milkshake machine business drying up, and most of his clients heading elsewhere, one company purchases a large volume of his milkshake machines. This eventually leads to a visit to San Bernardino, California, and also that hamburger, purchased at the McDonald’s Diner, a drive-in owned by two brothers, Mac and Dick McDonald (John Carroll Lynch, Nick Offerman). After chattering his way into meeting the brothers, Kroc is mesmerized at how efficient an operation the brothers have created.
Later, a dinner meeting between the McDonalds and Kroc sets in motion a series of fateful encounters that finds the pesky salesman outmaneuver and manipulate a working relationship to his benefit. History tells us that Kroc systematically wrestled control of the company away from the McDonald brothers and as we watch this all unfold, Hancock and Siegel seem just as gobsmacked as Mac and Dick do when dealing with their hyper and almost rabid business partner.
The Founder is well-acted through and through. In addition to Keaton’s fine work and strong performances from Offerman and Lynch, Laura Dern serves as something of a counterpoint and conscience as Kroc’s first wife Ethel, who stuck with him through numerous financial missteps and hardships. That loyalty would be repaid when Kroc meets Joan (Linda Cardellini), the wife of a restaurateur (Patrick Wilson) who hopes to join the team. When all is said and done, Kroc would take far more than just the man’s money.
Hancock has never really been edgy or rough in his films and here he wants to have the Big Mac, french fries, and chocolate milkshake all at the same time. As the stakes tighten and tension is supposed to mount, Siegel’s script cowers and hides. For The Founder to work at the level it needs to, we need grit and grime, not glossed over scenes where Kroc is coy and deceptive, then charming and conniving, to later be flat out cruel to some and loving with others. The darker elements hinted at here are bathed in such a clean, tidy, and nice-looking film that it is hard to know whether we are supposed to celebrate Ray Kroc as an innovator, demonize him as something of a dastardly villain, or live somewhere in between.
Strictly speaking, The Founder is just not good enough a film to give us the room to be objective. Keaton delivers two monologues which bookend the story and do provide some substance to contemplate and kick around once the credits appear on screen. However, nicely worded speeches to the camera do little more than amplify the fact that Kroc was seemingly not a very good human being, but eventually lucked into becoming one outstanding businessman.
One has to wonder if this was all meant to be something different than what we ended up with here. Initially, the film was pitched as a cross between Paul Thomas Anderson’s searing There Will Be Blood and David Fincher’s brilliant The Social Network, a story of two men, in Daniel Purview and Mark Zuckerberg, who were willing to do whatever it took to have their dreams and desires become a reality.
Either too afraid to go “full Ray Kroc” or perhaps, more likely, too worried about denigrating the McDonald’s brand, The Founder leaves you about as satisfied as that impulsive decision you had last week when you ordered the combo and upgraded to large fries. Sure, it tasted alright in the moment, but the bellyache afterward makes you regret the decision almost immediately.
SHOULD I SEE IT?
- This is a worthwhile story to tell and Michael Keaton is, at times, quite terrific as the complicated and hard-to-love Ray Kroc.
- Moves at an easy and watchable pace, a testament to how director John Lee Hancock likes to swiftly move through his stories in a measured, patterned way.
- For those interested in McDonald’s and how it became a mega-monster of a company that feeds 1% of Earth’s population on a daily basis, The Founder, short a documentary, is the best you’re likely going to get.
- The screenplay is a bit of a mess, unsure of where it sees Kroc as a historical figure. That uncertainty ruins the potential for a pretty terrific movie, especially in the back half when the movie ramps up Kroc’s more cutthroat business practices.
- Maybe the better movie would be one that focuses on the brothers and not Ray Kroc.
- There is a seething, simmering caustic nature to this which is hard to shake, even with some great performances and the film’s inviting vibe.