The story behind McDonald’s is almost as fascinating as the world’s obsession with the McRib. The Founder is a straightforward attempt to tell that story (of the history, not the pork sandwich), with a focus on Ray Kroc, the man who turned McDonald’s into what it would come be today, for better or worse. Given what took place, the topic is ripe for a solid film, but despite a screenplay full of ideas and potential to morph into something cinematically great, the film feels undercut by fairly standard direction that takes less of a bite into the material than the customers do into their Big Macs.
Set largely during the mid-50s to early 60s, Michael Keaton stars as Ray Kroc, a struggling salesman who happened upon the revolutionary diner founded by Mac McDonald (John Carroll Lynch) and his brother Dick (Nick Offerman). Ray is so impressed by the brothers’ fast and efficient operation that he immediately goes all in on partnering with them in an attempt to franchise this McDonald’s idea. Soon enough, Ray is able to get the means to really develop the restaurant, but finds himself constantly having to deal with the micro-management of the McDonald’s brothers. Ray’s bold choices could make for a lucrative franchise and given how popular McDonald’s is today, you likely know he ultimately gets his way, but at what cost?
Right away, it should be made clear how solid the performances are in this film. Some of the side characters may have less going on than preferred, given the talent involved (Patrick Wilson, Linda Cardellini and Laura Dern all do the most with what they have), but Keaton, Offerman and Lynch are all great. As the brothers, Offerman and Lynch do plenty to show their differences, their team work and how the interest that turns into stress caused by Ray gets to them differently. These two are great, particularly when it comes to walking the line in the film’s first half, which must contend with not just feeling like a huge advertisement for McDonald’s.
As for Keaton, it’s of no surprise to see him shine here. Even with a slight accent, given the chance to play a guy who is a bit roguish and morally flexible is the right kind of challenge that Keaton is able to tackle. Watching him charm and wheel & deal his way through different scenarios, let alone see the impact of different emotions get to him, is the kind of stuff that has made him such a terrific performer over the many years, even before his sudden reemergence following Birdman. Given the kinds of things Ray does, you realize this is a guy who wants to succeed more than he wants to make money and that is never unclear, thanks to what Keaton brings to the part.
The reason why this movie isn’t a supersized win in all respects is John Lee Hancock’s direction. Robert D. Siegel (The Wrestler) has written a solid script that has moments where the dialogue really crackles and the action really shines as far as the depiction of a man breaking the rules to succeed. Unfortunately, there is a level of bite that feels needed to really dig into the effect Kroc’s character has on the other characters, let alone the world established by this film. While the film effortlessly develops the story’s build up to Ray doing what he needs to in order to start building more McDonald’s, it’s the gradual switch into more cynical territory that the film misses out on hitting harder.
It’s not that The Founder needed to be more satirical or delve into utter darkness. Really, it’s just seeing Hancock’s fairly safe style of filmmaking that finds little opportunity to make this film seem like anything more than a standard biopic (complete with a text-based epilogue). The results are fine, but it feels like there is so much more that could be done with this story.
In addition to inserting some subtle shots that position Ray as the larger force, while others begin to fade away behind him, I wish there was more to see in terms of how America slowly changes around Ray. McDonald’s has become such a huge force in the world that seeing a story about the man who supposedly founded the whole thing gives way to a film that really drives home how the fiction becomes greater than the truth. That’s the thing with this film, it never rises to hit the viewer with a sense of scale that it should have.
While Keaton is certainly game to bring the kind of energy needed, I wish the movie did better to support such a fascinating character. As it stands, The Founder does a lot to make it enjoyable, but I’m not quite lovin’ it. It’s well acted and seeing an idyllic start evolve into something else made for some good fun in a fairly well-paced story. However, there’s a sharper version of this story that seems to have escaped the grasps of the cooks in The Founder’s kitchen.