There’s practically one on every corner in America and practically one in every corner of the world. The story of how a little burger joint in San Bernardino became an indelible part of the American identity is the story The Founder, a film about the start of McDonald’s and Ray Kroc. However, Ray Kroc wasn’t the founder of McDonald’s. He was simply the man who took the ideas of the McDonald Brothers and franchised it out, using devious means to wrestle control away from the founding siblings. The Founder features a strong performance by Michael Keaton as Kroc but is often a frustrating cinematic experience as it often feels that the focus should be on the brothers who are doomed to be betrayed by a pirate capitalist.
Ray Kroc (Keaton) is a struggling salesman in the Midwest, peddling milkshake machines at restaurants all over. They’re mostly drive up diners with shoddy service and lengthy wait times. When he gets a large order for six milkshake machines for an establishment in San Bernardino, California, Kroc makes the lengthy drive to examine this establishment. At McDonald’s the lines are lengthy but move fast, and orders are prepared in 30 seconds. Kroc then introduces himself to Mac (John Carol Lynch) and Dick McDonald (Nick Offerman), who have honed their burger-making skills after a number of disappointing business ventures. It’s a streamlined process and Kroc sees it a perfect franchising opportunity, though the McDonalds are apprehensive because they’ve attempted and failed that before. After much negotiating, Kroc enters into a deal with McDonald Brothers to oversee franchising.
In order to fund his venture, Kroc places a mortgage on his house and hides the fact from his wife Ethel (Laura Dern). It doesn’t take long for Kroc to start getting franchisees and the McDonald’s brand expands in various parts of the country with Kroc exerting a level of control over the new owners. Any attempts to institute changes in the stores is met with great resistance by the founding McDonalds and the restrictive deal that he signed left him short of money. While seeking more capital, Kroc meets an enterprising young man Harry J. Sonneborn (B.J. Novak), who encourages him to invest in real estate as a means to boost his income. Meanwhile, Kroc’s marriage goes on the skids as he becomes infatuated with Joan Smith (Linda Cardellini), the wife of franchisee Rollie Smith (Patrick Wilson). Be it Joan or McDonald’s, Ray Kroc will get what he wants no matter who it hurts.
The Founder becomes increasingly frustrating to watch because director John Lee Hancock struggles to find a flow to the story. Hancock is able to get the desperation of Ray Kroc to find his slice of the American Dream but the film is often eager to justify some of his more devious means as the film progresses. Ray Kroc didn’t create anything new. The McDonald Brothers created the speedy system that made McDonald’s better than its competitors. Ray Kroc simply sold it better than anyone else. There’s a level of genius to Kroc but it comes with a dark side that the film simply writes off too often. It leads me to believe that The Founder and its script by Robert Siegel would’ve been better suited had it focused on the McDonald Brothers as they lose control of their company by an interloping individual who is nothing more than a vampire capitalist.
Throughout The Founder, the film is always teetering on the brink of being really good but always falls short as it often shies away from being too critical of its subject. The film has a nice retro look to its production design and is consistently well-acted. Keaton delivers a strong performance as the driven man who wants to take a burger stand into a billion-dollar company. Conversely, John Carol Lynch and Nick Offerman are equally strong as the betrayed McDonald Brothers. One thing that’s unforgivable about The Founder is the way that it squanders the presence of Laura Dern who is saddled in the thankless role of first wife and is often shuffled off to the side in her relatively few scenes.
On the Blu-ray there are a handful of featurettes that explore the making of the film and the real life story from which it drew its inspiration. These short documentaries give extra insight into the authenticity of the story, and features interviews with the film’s stars as well as director John Lee Hancock and screenwriter Robert Siegel.
The Founder is most fascinating when it explores what the McDonalds Brother did that made their burgers and fries stand out above the rest. It’s a fascinating character study in a driven man in Ray Kroc, but its embrace of moral ambiguity often feels like its letting the fast food mogul off the hook for his duplicitous dealings that squeezed the founding siblings off McDonald’s out of their own company with only the slightest fraction of its value. The Founder is almost satisfying but it seems like it has been under the heat lamps for a little too long and winds up soggy and lacking in flavor.
Almost a very good movie about the founding of McDonald’s, The Founder features some stellar acting but is undone by a moral ambiguity that takes the ethically dubious nature of Ray Kroc off the hook.