Reviewer: Philip Price
Director: John Lee Hancock
Stars: BJ Novak, John Caroll Lynch, Laura Dern, Linda Cardellini, Michael Keaton, Nick Offerman, Patrick Wilson
Released: February 17th, 2017
In The Founder, Michael Keaton as Ray Kroc favors the saying, “fortune favors the bold,” but the question that comes to mind as the The Founder reaches its denouement and shows us not just what Kroc became in the professional world, but who he became as a person is just how bold was this guy? As it turns out, quite. There were risks involved in his journey that were never guaranteed to pay off and he arguably had a vision no one else did-or at least the balls no one else had to risk it all. In the end, fortune obviously favors Ray Kroc, but at what expense to his humanity and decency? Some may say such things don’t matter when you’re worth $500 million, but in those final moments of The Founder where Kroc rehearses lines for a speech he stole from old motivational records when his wife, who he also stole, walks into the room and he catches her eye that there is a hint of self-awareness; of knowing that there was a price for all that he now looked down upon. Keaton, in all his charming and endearing glory, snaps his face out of the thought that dazed him only for a moment as if to say such was a price he’d gladly pay again and again. Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence he tells himself-not talent, not education-persistence. It is in this train of thought, this idea that Kroc is never complacent or content with his life that confounds though as the movie that now tells his life story tends to air on the side of being exactly that-content. Directed by John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side, Saving Mr. Banks) The Founder is a perfectly acceptable slice of cinema as it is obviously well-crafted, hits all the right notes, and features a handful of appealing performances with Keaton being a whirlwind of as much sly charm as he can possibly muster-carrying this thing across the finish line with ease. It’s not that there is anything particularly bad about the film, but there isn’t anything that is rather exceptional either. Instead, The Founder more or less delivers what is expected of a biopic these days with only slight indications that there was a deeper, more cutting ambition to the project that maybe took a backseat to safety. There have been many a comparisons between The Social Network and this film with its protagonists being ruthless men who take ideas from smaller thinking men and turn them into multi-billion dollar businesses, but where David Fincher’s film had a specific tone and a certain state of mind that was in place from the get-go, The Founder never feels as personal or alluring. It, ironically, never feels bold enough to transcend its genre lines.
Beginning in St. Louis in 1954 we meet Kroc as a milkshake machine salesman who is traveling across the southern region of the U.S. and finding himself disenchanted not only with the job and prospective clients, but maybe most importantly-with the service he receives at restaurants when he stops in for a little lunch. It is when a small burger joint in San Bernardino, California unexpectedly orders eight machines that Kroc has to see for himself why such an establishment would require so many machines. Upon arriving in San Bernardino Kroc comes face to face with Dick (Nick Offerman) and Mac McDonald (John Carroll Lynch) and their creation that takes its name from theirs. This first McDonalds stand is unlike anything Kroc has ever seen. It employs concepts to the customer so common today, but that were beyond foreign in the mid-fifties. Rather than being set-up on a drive-in structure, the McDonald’s brothers had customers come up to their window to order, would deliver orders in less than a minute, and wrap their food in disposable paper so as to quickly dispose of it rather than having a crew member constantly running the dishwasher. Kroc immediately recognizes the genius in the “speedy system” the brothers have devised and promptly asks them to dinner. The brothers oblige, telling Kroc their life story which we, the audience, are give full access to. Older brother Mac can’t help but to recount the accomplishment of he and his brother and how it came to be-delving into all the details as if putting on a show for their new friend including how they came up with the “speedy system” that allowed them to deliver fresh, hot meals in such a quick and even pace. It is as the film allows us to get to better know Kroc that we realize this isn’t the first time he’s made a gamble on a product, but this is the first gamble that might (obviously) pay off. Mac and Dick always dreamt of franchising, but in expanding their brand they felt they lost too much control over the quality of their system and thus they became content-something Kroc could never be even if he wanted. In that same year Kroc arrived in San Bernardino and met the McDonald’s brothers for the first time he struck a deal with them to franchise their brand across the country as he saw the real potential it held. Mac and Dick still had creative control over everything that happened inside the restaurants, but Kroc was the one growing the name, the brand, and the more it grew the more control he naturally wanted.
What is interesting about Hancock’s film is that it begins fine enough, like a well-intentioned portrait of a person who did something revolutionary and thus changed the way we look at the world today. And then, as it begins to develop this subject the tone the human being took inevitably forces the film about that subject to take a different tone as well. In the case of Ray Kroc this was a rather dark shift. Kroc realizes the potential of the McDonald’s brothers concept and feels he’s the guy to exploit it and make as big a profit from it as he can even if none of the ideas were his own. The film sets in place early this throughline of an idea that Kroc is not an innovator, maybe not even a visionary, but rather just the middle man who had the foresight to know how well these idea would work. This isn’t all bad in the beginning-Kroc is seemingly happy to have just gotten in on the ground floor, but the more stores he opens, the bigger the brand becomes. It is not until B.J. Novak’s Harry J. Sonneborn enters the picture though, that things begin to really shift. Sonneborn suggests the reason Kroc is still struggling financially despite growing the McDonald’s brand exponentially is because he doesn’t own the land these restaurants sit on. That, in all actuality, he’s not in the burger business, but the real estate business. Kroc knows he has to get out from under the thumb of the McDonalds brothers, and specifically Dick, and this is that moment where not only does the story take the turn, but the character of Kroc does. In playing this arc in a character, an arc the actual Kroc may not have even realized was happening in the moment, Keaton is flat-out fantastic. It is funny, because there has always been a hint of Keaton in the performances of Steve Carell and in this film specifically one can see the shades of empathy that Carell would naturally play that Keaton utilizes. We don’t inherently think of Kroc as a bad guy and he certainly doesn’t see himself that way, but he grows to become both the films protagonist and antagonist. This is a unique persona to play and Keaton runs with the opportunity adding more shades to his character than Kroc has brown suits. It is in this twist the character takes that Keaton really latches onto; playing him first as someone with pure ambition who, once he has accomplished a goal, only continues to set higher and higher goals. As Kroc develops higher standards, he also develops a tolerance for more ruthless ways of achieving them.
There is a scene in The Founder where Keaton as Kroc talks about making Dick’s idea of the “golden arches” as common in little towns across the country as steeples on churches and flags on courthouses. Every town should have one he proclaims. It is one of those scenes that encapsulates the pure scope of imagination one can have if as determined and dare I say persistent as Kroc is. It’s a eureka type sequence and in executing as much successfully Keaton lifts the movie from its handsome production and rather predictable if not exactly well known story to that of a rather fascinating experience. The thing is, someone was eventually going to place commerce over quality. Someone was going to realize they could make more money faster by selling larger quantities without necessarily worrying too much about quality, but Kroc is the one who capitalized on this train of thought and as wrong as he was in how he went about accomplishing his wealth-he is the one who made it happen. He was indisputably bold and thus fortune leaned in his favor. It might not have been under the best of circumstances, it may not have been ethical by way of basic human principles, but someone was going to do it and now we have Ray Kroc to thank for this line of thinking. It is arguably a large portion of what is wrong with out current mindsets-having become so accustomed to instant gratification that we rarely take the time to appreciate anything. Rather than dig into such ideas or implications though, Robert D. Siegel’s (The Wrestler, Big Fan) screenplay lets the viewer decide how they view the man and the myth though it’s pretty clear where the film falls in its opinion as the final scenes unfold. As expected, Keaton is very much the star of this show and yet it is the McDonald’s brothers who we come away liking most, and rightfully so. As played by Lynch and Offerman these two everyman actors display a vivid portrait of what we think of as Americana-two men, family, just trying to make a mark on the world in some significant way with nothing but good intentions and hopes no bigger than providing for their families. Novak, Patrick Wilson, and especially Linda Cardellini get some interesting material to play while Laura Dern is left out in the cold, reduced to the nagging wife role. With The Founder it is Kroc who is happily the star of the McDonald’s story which isn’t necessarily right, but it is true and seemingly accurate as Kroc had a keen sense of when it was best to steal the spotlight, among other things, from those closest to him.