Movie Review: The Founder

An interesting if unsatisfying character drama contains an original if unfulfilled theme in The Founder with Michael Keaton (Birdman) as McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc.

What makes Kroc the founder, a debatable assertion by this account, is the movie’s focus. What leaves the meaning unclear is the way director John Lee Hancock (The Alamo) dodges and hedges. This is utimately why The Founder, which could have been a powerhouse 2016 movie, peters out. Yet what a promising start, with sunny skies and nothing but an ambitiously idealistic adult driven to make money—and a movie about an ‘overnight’ success who’s over the age of 50 (like Col. Sanders or Judi Dench) is long overdue. This is the blank canvas of The Founder, sketching an open market in which demand for fast, simple and delicious food meets the grit of a seasoned salesman from suburban Chicago. The insights in the first two-thirds of the film—about the exhaustive work of thinking about, finding, studying, funding and cultivating a good idea with steely, feisty enthusiasm—are penetrating. The Founder in these stretches is a near-complete depiction of the money-making man in action, from enduring the vacancy and sameness of a carhop joint in Chesterfield, Missouri, to tapping the vitality and excitement of an enterprise out West.

The film’s regionalism and realism are its finest attributes.

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As with La La Land, Hancock and screenwriter Robert Siegel, powered by Keaton’s performance, let this business-themed movie capture the Southern California (and, broadly, Western) ethos of self-made Americanism matched by Midwestern work ethic. You’ll never think of San Bernardino, a poor area of metropolitan LA recently known for an Islamic terrorist attack by jihadists known to the FBI, the same way again. Depending on which competing version you believe in this back and forth dramatization of a business partnership gone bad, the story of McDonald’s and its rise to fast food success is at once sobering and invigorating. Saddled with a wife (Laura Dern, pointed as always) whose support is tepid, important and strictly secondhand, Keaton’s Kroc contemplates and extrapolates the McDonald brothers’ trial and error tale of tennis court choreography, which took them from New Hampshire through Columbia Pictures, the crash of 1929 and the San Gabriel Valley to a perfect process. The brothers see the San Bernardino hamburger stand as the end of the road.

Through the burgeoning positive thinking self-improvement movement stressing persistence and endless shots of Canadian Club whisky, milkshake machine vendor Kroc sees dollar signs in McDonald’s. Kroc pushes and pushes the homespun brothers McDonald all the way to Des Plaines, Illinois (incidentally, where I first tasted and occasionally ate at Kroc’s first McDonald’s). Kroc investigates, shapes and defines a business partnership they can’t refuse. When the contract goes to signatures, like the hustler in this week’s other take on capitalism, Gold, no one but Kroc thinks the fast food process can be properly balanced and scaled. And it’s important to note that they have legitimate gripes, concerns and grievances. Later, one person does see potential with equal vigor (Linda Cardellini as Joan) but Kroc’s own country club wife in Arlington Heights asks: “When’s enough going to be enough?”

Rather than respond with religious verses, slogans and bromides about charity and humility, Kroc thinks, pauses and replies: “Probably never.” Up go the golden arches and wide go Kroc’s tired, hardworking eyes when he sets his sights upon his sacred temple for the first time, looking upward through a windshield in the movie’s best scene—it is his vision by any honest account of what that means—and, with symbols such as covered wagons and Kroc drawing spiritual strength from Kazan’s On the Waterfront, big business McDonald’s is finally born. How it’s done, how it’s earned, how it’s built on whisky and ruthlessness, from Kroc’s cheerful “Let’s get to work, boys” to inclusive recruitment of blacks, Jews and women, is inspiring. The brothers may denounce what they call Kroc’s “crass commercialism”, and The Founder goes limp on Kroc’s character, portraying him as dishonest in spite of contradictions. Whatever his flaws, if name and title can be earned, and they can, Ray Kroc deserves the movie’s title. To a certain extent, The Founder, thanks to Michael Keaton, driving the movie with a spot-on portrayal of an unpretentiously self-made man, shows the businessman who made McDonald’s. Decide for yourself whether Kroc stole, seized or started this amazing enterprise, which revolutionized the business of food, up from scratch.

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