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It’s 1954 and Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton) is a travelling salesman trying to sell 5 spindle milkshake makers to diners across America. Following up on an order that he believes to be a mistake, he is introduced to “Dick” and “Mac” McDonald (Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch, respectively), owners of a thriving revolutionary diner that can give its patrons a burger, fries and a soda in 30 seconds, not 30 minutes. Absolutely astounded by this, Kroc wishes to help Dick and Mac realise their dream of franchising the business. But at what cost?
McDonald’s fast food restaurants are something we are familiar with, and the McDonald’s logo is one of the most recognised brand trademarks in the world. According to statistics provided by The Founder film itself, the 36,000 odd McDonald’s restaurants around the globe reportedly feed 1% of the world’s population every day. That’s a lot of Big Macs! Yet not once as I queued for a burger did I ponder, “wouldn’t the origins of McDonald’s make a great movie?” It never crossed my mind yet, as The Founder attempts to illustrate, the beginnings of the fast food behemoth are far from ordinary and not free from strife and controversy. There’s an early scene between the McDonald brothers and Ray Kroc where Mac McDonald spins this fantastic story about how the two broke bothers overcame poor job prospects in the 1920’s and a failed business in the 1940’s to create the first ever McDonald’s burger stand. That one sequence on its own would have made a fascinating film, or at least a fascinating documentary. Yet The Founder is not concerned with how that very first McDonald’s restaurant came into being, but how Ray Kroc created the McDonald’s Corporation, plotting the trajectory of McDonald’s from a small but busy burger kiosk in San Bernadine to a global mega industry.
It’s a remarkable story, but does it work? For the most part, yes it does. Michael Keaton really excels as Ray Kroc and the film is bookended nicely with two similarly worded but tonally opposite monologues delivered directly to the audience. These monologues highlight the transformation in the character, how Keaton subtly evolves Ray Kroc from an idealist opportunist at the start, desperate to hock a few milkshake makers to keep his head above water, to a ruthless businessman who is willing to steamroll anyone that gets in his way. It is easily one of Keaton’s best performances in recent years, which is saying something as the last 5 years Keaton has reeled off one great performance after another. Noted for a manic sharpness that made his Batman, his Beetlejuice and his roles in such diverse films as Pacific Heights, The Paper, Multiplicity and Dream Team so interesting, Keaton wisely channels this energy and uses it less blatantly to turn Kroc into a sly, lip-curlingly merciless capitalist. It’s chilling in places.
Yet this isn’t just Keaton’s film. He is ably supported by the ever-excellent Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch. Though Offerman boasts a deadpan delivery that has been the backbone of every character he has played, this style suits his portrayal of the stiff, staid Dick McDonald. John Carroll Lynch never sets a foot wrong as the soft-hearted, enthusiastic and trusting Mac McDonald and he is very much the heart of this film. Each of the trio are well defined and the natural conflict that emerges as their paths start to diverge drives The Founder. Not as well presented are some of the supporting characters though and unfortunately the talented Laura Dern really doesn’t have a lot to do. As Kroc’s wife, she is pushed off to the wings and cuts a very isolated figure as the frustrated and ignored housewife. She does make the most of the few scenes she has but isn’t asked to do much more than pout and give out that he is never home. Linda Cardellini is given another limited supporting role but is more successful in portraying the equally ruthless Joan Smith, who captivates Kroc and sees in him her own chance to achieve wealth and fame.
The Founder is very much a film of two halves, the first highlighting the struggles of idealist Ray Kroc to try get the McDonald’s franchise on its feet, and the second half showing Kroc’s transformation from idealist to ruthless capitalist. While it is refreshing to see Keaton as a “nice guy” character, he really revels in the second half of the film as he gets to invest his natural manic zeal in turning that salesman’s smile into a shark-like grin. Not without fault, the film does linger too long during the opening hour on Keaton’s wonder and awe about how the burger kiosk in San Bernadino is so successful. That slow set up almost convinces you that this is going to be a very different kind of film, a more standard paint by numbers interpretation of the McDonald’s story (it’s anything but). Laura Dern’s Ethel Kroc is poorly sketched and Patrick Wilson is wasted as Rollie Smith, an important character in Kroc’s life, but one simple glanced over in this film. Yet these are minor quibbles. Overall, The Founder works perfectly well as both an account of the McDonald’s success story and a morality tale on how power, money and greed can corrupt.
It’s a film powered by the type of performance we have come to expect from Michael Keaton since the rejuvenating burst that Birdman gave his career – Keaton’s Kroc is a fascinating study of ruthless ambition. Ably supported by Offerman and Carroll Lynch, The Founder is interesting, yet not gripping. It’s one step away from being brilliant but absolutely worth your time, if just to watch Keaton alone.
The Founder is in cinemas now. View the trailer below.