Sometimes a movie comes along that challenges me to figure out what’s wrong with it. I KNOW The Founder is imperfect, but it was hard to put my finger on why, initially. It’s certainly not a bad film, but it’s key fault left me feeling, well, NOT feeling.
The Founder is the story of how Ray Kroc discovered, and then made an empire, from franchising McDonald’s. It’s a pretty fascinating All-American story of how a guy became hugely successful in his choice of business. But that success wasn’t all just hard work, perseverance, and determination. As is often the case, that success was partially born of making some choices at the expense of others. Turns out I learned some things I didn’t know about this guy and his story.
The Founder starts out with Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton), a traveling salesman trying to sell this multimixer that can make up to like, five milkshakes at a time. Apparently, for 1954, that was quite a step up for diners and drive-up burger stands. He’s made an ok living over the years, but being on the road has taken its’ toll on his marriage. And a string of failed “next big thing” ideas, and an always-present flask, certainly isn’t doing his marriage any favors, either.
But when he gets an order for eight of his multimixers (that can’t be right) for a burger stand in San Bernardino, well, he has to drive west and see what that’s all about. And what he finds is Mac and Dick McDonald (John Carrol Lynch and Nick Offerman) who have revolutionized the way food is prepared and served. They have created a system so efficient that they can get your order to you from beginning to completion in about 30 seconds. And of course, in those days, the food was fresh, all natural and delicious.
Kroc had the vision to franchise, but the McDonald’s had tried that without much success – even their store in Phoenix, AZ where they designed the building with yellow arches failed. The other franchise owners kept adding menu items that weren’t supposed to be there. Corn on the cob? Burritos? Nonsense! It should only be burgers, fries, sodas, and milkshakes. So the McDonald brothers were wary of Kroc’s proposal.
Well, after some convincing and a very specific contract, the McDonald’s made the deal with Kroc. But before long, we see the film shift a little in tone. And we see Michael Keaton’s Ray Kroc show his ambitious colors more and more. Kroc was a big idea guy. He had big plans and the drive to put them into action. He often felt stone-walled by the contract with Mac and Dick, until one day he met Harry Sonneborn (B.J. Novak), who introduced Kroc to the idea that he could buy the land the restaurants are built on, and therefore LEASE the land to the franchise owners.
Michael Keaton starts to show Ray Kroc’s darker side. His inner asshole comes through. But he’s still kinda likable, soooo… It’s a story of American success, but also the uglier side of how one can reach that success. Unfortunately the tone never really becomes clear enough. It’s actually TOO subtle in this message. Is Ray Kroc the great story of what hard work and determination can get you, or is it a scathing expose’ on how that detemination for success and wealth can cause a person to roll over good people? The film never pushes far enough in either direction to clearly offer a point.
Now, you could say that’s great, it leaves it up to your audience. And maybe you’ll like this for that reason. But I felt like in many ways, the writer, Robert D. Siegel, and director, John Lee Hancock, weren’t really sure themselves. I can say though, Michael Keaton seemed quite sure as to how he wanted to play Kroc. His performance gets more nuanced as the film progresses. He clearly didn’t want to whitewash over who this man was and the consequences of the choices he made.
The Founder is beautifully shot – such beautiful use of color – and the acting is great across the board. The production design is exceptional, too. You really feel transported to the 1950’s.
I will also say that the last scene in the film in particular offers a moving dramatic moment of that makes up for a lot of the previous tonal ambiguity. The Founder isn’t a great film, but it’s still a good one. I just wish there had been a few more defined dramatic moments. Three, maybe three and a half kittenhands. Not a must-see in the theater, no need for a big screen, but worth checking out later on DVD/streaming.
~ Neil T Weakley, your average movie-goer, wanted this to be better than it was, but still not a total loss. I mean, I DID see it with a Q&A with director John Lee Hancock and Michael Keaton. 🙂