Directed by: John Lee Hancock
Premise: A dramatization of the rise of McDonalds. Salesman Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton) discovers the restaurant owned and operated by Dick and Mac McDonald (Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch). Kroc offers to franchise the business and eventually takes over McDonalds.
What Works: To this point, director John Lee Hancock has been making films about American institutions and figures. His previous efforts include 2004’s The Alamo, about the famous battle at the Texas fort, 2009’s The Blind Side, a biographical story of NFL player Michael Oher, and 2013’s Saving Mr. Banks, about the making of Walt Disney’s Mary Poppins. For the most part, Hancock has affirmed the popular understanding of these people and organizations and his films reinforce American values of hard work and individuality. That’s what makes The Founder an interesting picture. At face value, this is another story about an American businessman whose hard work and determination led to great success. But there is more to the movie than that. Ray Kroc didn’t have the idea for McDonald’s; he saw the potential in someone else’s idea and went about stealing the company out from under them. As dramatized in this film, Kroc discovered the McDonald’s restaurant founded by Dick and Mac McDonald. The brothers brought the automation and compartmentalization of manufacturing to the restaurant business. It was the origin of what is now commonplace but was then revolutionary. Kroc saw the potential in McDonald’s and convinced the brothers to let him franchise their business. From there Kroc’s life of struggle turned into success and the film does an excellent job of allowing Kroc’s character to gradually reveal himself. It isn’t that he changes so much as Kroc grows into the person that he always was. Success allows him to drop the facade he was forced to maintain as a struggling businessman. This is a smart and subversive take on the capitalist success story that Hollywood has so often presented; what begins as a story about innovation mutates into the triumph of brands and franchises over locally owned businesses. The Founder includes a few great performances, namely from Michael Keaton as Ray Kroc. Keaton does not try to smooth over Kroc’s flaws but he doesn’t portray him as a monster either. The cast also includes Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch as the McDonald brothers. Dick and Mac are distinct characters and they give the movie some deeper emotional appeal as they lose their grip on their own creation.
What Doesn’t: There aren’t a whole lot of surprises in The Founder. That’s not uncommon of true stories especially those that are as well known as the origin of McDonalds. Of interest in a story like this are the how and the why as opposed to what and The Founder tells those aspects of the story pretty well. But the film comes up short in its characterization. Most everyone in this film is exactly who they initially appear to be. That’s especially true of Dick and Mac McDonald. We get a sense of who they are and what happened to them but they don’t really evolve as characters over the course of the story. Almost all of their scenes are confined to their initial McDonald’s restaurant and they don’t appear to have lives outside of it. Most of the supporting players are allowed little or no characterization and the film misses opportunities to do more with these people. That’s most evident in Joan Smith (Linda Cardellini), a franchise owner who would become Kroc’s second wife. The evolution of their relationship mostly occurs off screen and so The Founder misses some important moments that would define the characters.
Bottom Line: The Founder is an entertaining story that also manages to be a little bit subversive in the way it plays upon familiar storytelling themes. While the supporting cast is mostly marginalized, that’s fitting given the subject matter and Michael Keaton is terrific in the lead role.
Episode: #633 (February 5, 2017)