Mark Zuckerberg only thought he was an original. Long before he upended all of our lives with social media, Ray Kroc did the same thing with burgers. According to The Founder, the biopic about Kroc and the fast-food empire he swindled from a pair of brothers, the two even shared a few of the same tactics. The subject matter of both this film and David Fincher’s The Social Network, about the founder of Facebook, make comparisons between the movies almost unavoidable. In any such assessment of the two, The Founder is bound to come out as the lesser work of art. That’s mostly because director John Lee Hancock is not as assured or stylistically bold as Fincher. Robert D. Siegel’s script also lacks the verbal pyrotechnics of Aaron Sorkin’s dialog for The Social Network.
All that makes it seem like The Founder is a failure, which isn’t true. The movie is entertaining and even, at times, compelling. The core performance, Michael Keaton as Kroc, is a wonder to behold. Almost every actor around him turns in similarly solid work. There’s just a missing sense of pathos in the overall effect of the movie that, were it present, would transform The Founder from good to great.
The film starts in 1954 when a down-on-his-luck, restaurant-equipment salesman named Ray Kroc gets a surprise order for six milkshake spindles capable of making six shakes at a time. Prior to this, Kroc has had trouble making it through his (stale) sales pitch for just one of these machines before he is shut down. Kroc can’t believe his good fortune, so he calls the restaurant to confirm it.
The voice on the other end of the line does change his mind when he talks to Kroc; he’d better go ahead and order eight of the spindles, not six. Flabbergasted, Kroc decides to drive the hundreds of miles from his usual sales territory of the Midwest out to California. There he finds McDonald’s: a tiny but booming burger stand. And so begins the decades-long struggle of who truly founded fast-food, Kroc or Mac and Dick McDonald.
If that basic plot description doesn’t compel you to want to see The Founder, Keaton’s work as Kroc should. The actor’s late-career renaissance that began with 2014’s Birdman, and continued with the phenomenal Spotlight, rolls on here. His Ray Kroc is singularly determined to be a success despite countless attempts and failures in the past. Keaton is in almost every scene of the movie; it’s his alone to shoulder. In fact, he is such an omnipresent force in The Founder, it’s a bit jarring to watch scenes that exclude him.
The only other thing that holds Keaton back is a weakness in the writing. It doesn’t fully explore the character of the would-be restaurant mogul. Just like any real-life person, Kroc had a good side and a bad side, but the script fails to explore these facets with any real nuance. From scene to scene Kroc is either a scrappy business man who dreams the impossible, or he is a cut-throat Machiavellian plotter. Keaton does an excellent job with the slightly uneven nature of his character, though. You believe in Kroc as either a brilliant entrepreneur or total S.O.B. through Keaton’s great skill as an actor.
The supporting players in The Founder are also quite good. Laura Dern is Kroc’s wife, Ethel, a woman who feels abandoned because of her husband’s insatiable drive to succeed. Dern makes an impression, despite the movie not giving her much to do. Veteran character-actor John Carroll Lynch (probably most famous as Marge Gunderson’s sweet husband, Norm, in Fargo) plays Maurice “Mac” McDonald with a befuddled innocence that is increasingly heart-breaking as both he and his brother realize their little company is under attack from a ruthless interloper. Nick Offerman is the other half of that brother duo, and although his performance as the strict disciplinarian Dick McDonald is enjoyable, it’s also one-note. Dick supplied the know-how to turn their burger making operation into a well-oiled machine, ensuring customers get the perfect burger in 30 seconds, instead of 30 minutes.
When Kroc entices the brothers to turn their restaurant into a franchise, they are initially reluctant, because, they tell him, they’ve already tried it. There is no quality control, they explain. When you can’t oversee every aspect of a restaurant, quality inevitably suffers. Better to have one outstanding restaurant than 50 mediocre ones, Mac says. The Founder tries to have its burger and eat it too, by simultaneously exploring the darker side of Kroc’s power play to fashion himself the original founder of McDonald’s, and also holding him up as a brilliant entrepreneur who single-handedly invented a new industry. This gives the impression the filmmakers weren’t quite sure what story they wanted to tell.
A good corollary to this is a sequence that comes early in the film. When Kroc first arrives at the McDonald’s restaurant, he takes the brothers out to dinner, so he can hear their story. Dick and Mac launch into their tale of false starts and innovation that lead to the popular burger stand. Through a long series of flashbacks, we are shown what the brothers are describing to Kroc through voice-over narration. It’s a bravura sequence that unfortunately gets away from director Hancock by the end. It goes on much too long, and becomes a bit tiring before it’s over, again, ultimately leaving the impression Hancock wasn’t really sure what he wanted. He’s a good journeyman director who specializes in standard crowd-pleasing fare like Saving Mr. Banks, The Blind Side, and The Rookie, but this first attempt at something grander isn’t a complete success.
It’s also far from a failure. The Founder may not be completely satisfying, but there is enough here to warrant a second, or even third, viewing. For better or worse, McDonald’s revolutionized the way we eat, and Hancock and Keaton offer up a mostly compelling study of the man (or men) responsible for that.
Why it got 3 stars:
- The movie overall is a little lackluster, due to problems with the direction and the script, but there is one main reason to see The Founder: Keaton, Keaton, Keaton. He's great here.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- If you've been reading my work for any length of time, you might've noticed I try to stay away from snark. I usually only trot it out for the really terrible movies. The main reason is that I feel there's already an overabundance of it in the world, and frankly, I don't think I'm great at it. That being said, B.J. Novak (most famous as Ryan from The Office) turns up as the man with the answers to Kroc's problems. I like Novak as an actor, but he's basically doing his best Don Draper impression.
- I try not to get hung up on things like this, but there is a frustrating lack of making the timeline of events clear in The Founder. This is fine for an impressionistic movie that is more concerned with mood or emotion, but this movie covers decades of events without ever letting you know how much time has passed. This is even more glaring because of the one instance when the movie does do this. A title card at the beginning of the movie lets us know it's 1954, but never bothers to update us again.
- It feels unfair to so heavily compare The Founder and The Social Network, but the former really does come off as a less artfully made knock-off of the latter. You get just a hint of what it could have been with the very last shot of the movie.