Writer: Robert Siegel
Cast: Michael Keaton, Nick Offerman, John Carroll Lynch, Laura Dern
Running time: 115mins
What’s the story: In 1950s America, fifty-something milkshake machine salesman Ray Kroc (Keaton) convinces the McDonald brothers to allow him to franchise their burger restaurant across America. But, Dick and Mac McDonald (Offerman & Lynch) soon realise Ray’s ambition may be difficult to contain.
What’s the verdict: Birdman was tiresome Hollywood self-congratulation. But, one positive that emerged from the navel gazing was the revitalisation of Michael Keaton’s career. With Spotlight and now The Founder, Keaton is again becoming one of Tinseltown’s most exciting faces.
He clearly knows a juicy role when he sees it, sinking his teeth into the character of Ray Kroc. Part Elmer Gantry, part There Will Be Blood’s Daniel Plainview, part Michael Corleone, the travelling salesman Kroc is introduced espousing the “increase supply and the demand follows” ethos that will transform a modest hamburger joint into a global corporation that (for better or worse) feeds 1% of the world’s population daily.
That modest burger place is owned by siblings Dick and Mac McDonald, small time businessmen who moved to California with dreams of Hollywood but settle for quietly transforming the fast food business. Looking at ways to increase efficiency the two brothers take the typical 30-minute wait time and drop it to 30 seconds.
Ray sees this and invests his life and energy (and a fair bit of capital) into spreading the word via multiple restaurants, but increasingly butts heads with the more cautious McDonald boys. And disregards his supportive, neglected wife (Dern, in a performance of poise and regret).
Those expecting a Fast Food Nation style expose of the burger industry will be disappointed. The Founder focusses on how McDonald’s became a world straddling behemoth and short-hand for crass commercialism, rather than depicting its troubling attitudes to labour and food supply.
As Kroc busies himself establishing new chains and championing uniformity and cost-saving powdered milkshakes, scriptwriter Robert (The Wrestler) Siegel skewers his assertion that McDonald’s is as American as the flag and the church, plus his cynical use of this to target families.
But, The Founder also shows McDonald’s franchises as opportunities for the working classes to own a business, Kroc finding a more receptive audience there than the idle rich strolling the golf green. But, this blue-collar brigade is just another step for Ray on the road to world domination.
John Lee Hancock previously directed Saving Mr. Banks, another film centred on a controversial businessman who built an American empire, and brings the same efficient visuals to this movie. Shifting from bright and breezy exteriors to dimly lit, Godfather-like interiors as Kroc hardens into an ethics free monster, Hancock’s style may not be subtle, but it makes its point.
What elevates this tale of 20th century greed is Keaton’s central performance. There’s more than a whiff of sulphur to Keaton’s creation and it is unfortunate awards season has overlooked his work here.
Restless, tireless, and ruthless, his Kroc is a fascinating portrayal of ambition and avarice. The “founder” is a man prepared to take everything: other people’s ideas, ingenuity, and even their name to achieve his goals; the human cost of which can be seen in the increasingly anguished faces of Offerman and Lynch as the well-intentioned brothers.
Like a well-prepared burger, The Founder is juicy, flavourful and leaves you satisfied. The opposite of a Big Mac then.
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