Film review: The Founder
An efficient, irony-free film about McDonald's CEO Ray Kroc
The Founder is as remorselessly efficient and bland as the institution it celebrates. There isn’t a wasted frame in this telling of the Ray Kroc story—a seller of milkshake machines becoming the head of the largest fast food chain in the world—which is a pity. The film might have benefitted had it taken a breath from time to time and considered its surroundings. When this does happen, like the scene where Kroc (Michael Keaton) joins a client’s wife (Linda Cardellini) at a piano for a rendition of Pennies from Heaven, the film comes alive.
If you’re familiar with the McDonald’s story, you’ll know that Kroc didn’t start the enterprise, much as he’d prefer that people think he did. It began, instead, as a burger-fries-and-shakes joint in San Bernardino, California. The owners were brothers, Mac and Dick McDonald; they, not Kroc, were the ones who devised the time-efficient way of delivering food that set McDonald’s apart from other drive-in joints in the 1950s. In the film, Kroc, intrigued by their unusually large order of milkshake machines, pays them a visit. Recognizing the uncommon efficiency and replicability of their idea, he gnaws away at them until they enter into a partnership agreement with him. Almost immediately, he starts opening franchises.
If you didn’t already know that Kroc’s ambitions soon outstripped those of the McDonald brothers, you’ll see it coming from a mile off. It’s not just the spot-on casting: Keaton with his hawk-like stare, Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch—both excellent—as the sad-sack siblings. This isn’t a film given to subtlety of any kind, signaling its intentions and underlining its primary themes with wearying tenacity. Kroc’s long-suffering wife (Laura Dern) actually asks him “When’s enough going to be enough for you?", a line that ought to be made unavailable to biopic screenwriters everywhere.
John Lee Hancock’s film is tougher on its subject than I expected it to be; Kroc is shown neglecting his wife, dumping her once he’s successful, manoeuvring the franchise out of the hands of the hapless Mac and Dick. Yet, even this hard-nosed opportunism is presented as a kind of ode to capitalism and straight-talking American gumption. When Kroc first lays eyes on the golden arches, he gazes up at them in awe. We get the McVision, without the McIrony.