Imagine a burger – the best no-frills burger you’ve ever had. Imagine the bun; slightly crisp on the outside, soft and fluffy within. Imagine a thick, juicy patty cooked to perfection. Exactly two pickles; a dab of onion.
It seems unlikely you’d imagine that McDonalds would be the point of origin. Once upon a time, though…
The Founder opens with Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton), future CEO of the McDonalds Corporation, pitching directly to camera. The year is 1955 and Ray, a hardworking huckster, is selling heavy-duty milkshake mixers out the boot of his car – or trying to at least. Living out of hotel rooms, subsisting on whiskey and motivational LPs, his energy and tenacity seem to be getting him nowhere.
Keaton has spent much of his career playing delusional obsessives, from Batman to Birdman; guys pursuing an improbable calling to unknown ends, be it Broadway ambitions or fighting crime. With a lifetime of failed ventures behind him, Ray confesses to his wife Ethel (an admittedly under-served Laura Dern) – in whose cheeks his schemes have fretted frown lines – that enough will never be enough.
That is until he comes across two brothers, a small but booming burger business with a family clientele, and, more importantly, a franchisable model of speed and efficiency – the Speedee System AKA fast food. Franchisable, if only the McDonalds themselves will let him.
The hulking Mac McDonald (John Carroll Lynch) is a cheery, open aw-shucks sort; happy, even eager, to show Kroc around the premises. Dick (Park and Recreation‘s Nick Offerman), the bespectacled, level-headed ideas man, is more dubious. A double act of contrasts, they nevertheless agree completely on one thing: integrity. Dick is never happier – or happy at all, really – than when we see him orchestrating a “burger ballet” out on the tennis court; conceptualizing the perfect configuration for the kitchen from the umpire stand.
Still, when Ray calls on them to “Do it for America”, to challenge the rising tide of wrong food orders and slow delivery, to place the Golden Arches along with the flag and the cross all across the nation, from sea to shining to see, they buy it. We do, too; even though we know, or at least can guess, the final outcome.
To misquote the tagline for The Social Network, another film about personal and corporate betrayal, you don’t get to serve 68 million people a day – 1% of the world’s population – without making a few enemies.
The Founder bears a resemblance to 2013’s Saving Mr. Banks, also directed by John Lee Hancock; had Saving Mr. Banks truly delved into Walt Disney’s flaws instead of simply enshrining his legend, however charmingly. Ray Kroc is more akin to Walter White – if Walter White had believed in the slogan “Meth is Family”.
Filled with bitterness and frustration, albeit more subsumed, when Kroc steps out of his car at the gala opening of a new restaurant to a sunny day, cheerleaders and cheering crowds, he looks satisfied; like the world if finally giving him his due.
The Founder holds the idea behind McDonalds – the original walk-in, not the chain – in reverence. With his sly reptilian smile and that tell-tale tongue flick of Keaton’s, Kroc is the snake in the garden, looking to reproduce Eden on every city block; even if it means sweeping up outside each one. Say what you want about the devil, he’s got a commendable work ethic and, initially at least, he seems to genuinely believe in the cause.
As franchises go out, though, and his suits get first sharper then brasher, as he goes from underdog to overlord, and people stop laughing and start applauding, it becomes clear that being a founder will not be enough. The McDonalds are a limiting factor on his empire building – we can understand his frustrations – but the road to hell is paved with powdered milkshakes.
By the time Kroc’s reaching across the boardroom table with a handshake deal we know he has no intention of honoring, he has become out-and-out despicable. This is what happens when the hardworking and decent go up against the hardworking and unscrupulous.
The Founder, like the McDonalds themselves, is content to let the product sell itself; not unnecessary extras. Robert D. Siegel’s script is narratively simple but utterly effective. A sprinkling of satisfying ellipses mean there’s not an ounce of fat on it: a fry cook who Kroc notes agreeably at the grill is, we’re sure, destined for greatness; a chance meeting with a financial consultant (Mr. Bank‘s B.J. Novak) corrects Kroc’s whole understanding of the business he’s in.
The theme is a grand one – the selling-out of Americana and the corporatization of American dream. Carter Burwell’s score is bright and flute-y, free as the open range along which Kroc drives, but underlined with drums; a storm on the horizon, one of his own making. If the film were more obvious in its import, it could have been a sure shout for a Best Original Screenplay nom.
For all its delusions of grandeur, Gold was tin-eared; Lion (review pending) is, despite its artistry and good intentions, perhaps too plaintive. Another would-be Oscar contender from the Weinstein Company, The Founder manages to make you nostalgic for a burger – beef, a bun, two pickles a dab of onion – in just under two hours.
That might not impress the Academy, but, for this reviewer, it went down a treat.