I’m not really sure what happened to Michael Keaton in the late 90s and early 2000s. Perhaps walking away from the caped crusader made people think he was shunning his leading man status, or maybe there just weren’t enough outlets for his manic energy. It was a pleasure to see him pop up in stuff like 1997’s Jackie Brown (and reprise that role in an Out of Sight cameo the following year), but he had practically disappeared altogether before we started seeing him again in comedic roles like the police captain who moonlights at Bed, Bath & Beyond in The Other Guys, the voice of Ken in Toy Story 3 (both in 2010), or the maintenance man in 30 Rock. I’ve always loved his work, so I was thrilled to see him complete his comeback in style with Birdman, a part that played on his early career while launching the next stage of it. He picked another winner the following year when he led the ensemble in Spotlight, and now he delivers another scene chewing performance with The Founder.
Unfortunately, there’s not much else going on in this overcooked attempt to do for McDonald’s what The Social Network did for Facebook. Keaton plays Ray Kroc, a 52-year-old milkshake mixer salesman who visited one of the first McDonald’s locations in 1954 and saw franchise written all over it. First he must win over the McDonald brothers, the endearing softie Mac, played by John Carroll Lynch, and Dick, the hard-nosed idea man played by Nick Offerman. In what’s probably the best scene of the movie, the McDonald brothers have dinner with Ray and go over the entire history of their little family restaurant, and how they developed the fastest system possible to pump out those burgers, a symphony of efficiency as it were. They hesitantly bring Kroc into the fold, but he wants to expand at a much faster rate than they’re comfortable with. Kroc is persistent and eventually finds the contractual loopholes necessary to get his way. Ray Kroc didn’t invent McDonald’s, he just super sized it. While you certainly feel sympathetic for the McDonald brothers who end up being the Winklevoss twins in this scenario (making Kroc a Zuckerberg of sorts), it’s hard to feel sorry for them when you realize that Kroc basically had to trick them into getting rich, while screwing them out of getting richer. After all, you don’t get to over 99 Billion served without dropping a few fries.
Director John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side, Saving Mr. Banks) manages to create some nice moments, like Kroc’s first visit to McDonald’s, which plays out like Norman Rockwell watching people experience food for the first time. The classic 1950s setting contributes to just how American the whole story is. You can make your innovative idea a reality, but if you’re not careful it will likely get usurped by the hungrier capitalists around you. It’s the best and worst of America in one story.
If you’ve seen the trailer for The Founder, you’ve basically seen the entire film, right up to the final scenes and most of the best lines. It ends up feeling like empty calories with very little in the way of surprises. Perhaps most disappointing are the parts assigned to Laura Dern and Linda Cardellini, which can be boiled down to Mrs. Kroc before McDonald’s and Mrs. Kroc after McDonald’s. Hancock is a capable but by-the-numbers director, making The Founder fast and easy to swallow, but lacking in any real substance.
Even though Kroc is portrayed as a bit of a shit, you end up feeling like the whole movie is clever marketing from McDonald’s. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy the egg McMuffins that were supplied at the press screening courtesy of distributor Elevation Pictures, and if I’m being completely honest, I found myself later snacking on a McDouble that same day. There is something to be said for that cheap, instant gratification (in that regard it’s not unlike Facebook). It’s not subtle, as the branding is everywhere in the movie and its ad campaign. To my knowledge the fast food chain was not directly involved with making The Founder, but I don’t see them trying to get it pulled from theatres, either.