“Here is the church. Here is the steeple. Except this one has golden arches, and feeds all the people.”
Do you like my update to the child’s game above (you know, with the hand motions and stuff), inspired by McDonald’s CEO Ray Kroc? As The Founder tells us, Kroc equated McDonald’s illuminated “golden arches” to small-town beacons like church steeples or town hall flags. That’s what he saw when visiting the McDonald brothers’ first restaurant and their air-tight production chain – a product, efficiency and franchise potential.
Kroc was a salesman looking for his next big score, and through perseverance, he stumbled upon a fast-food empire in the making that no one could deny him. Not the good-old-boy McDonald brothers (who he screwed), not his first wife (who he divorced), and certainly not those rich, entitled friends he first looked to for help. Kroc’s story is one that begins as a humble slice of the American dream, then turns into an ego-obsessed play at greed, far more tragic than uplifting.
Michael Keaton valiantly stars as entrepreneur Ray Kroc, the man most known for establishing McDonald’s universal brand. What most people don’t remember is that McDonald’s was actually the brainchild of two brothers (played by Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch), who invented a system they dubbed the “Speedee” system. While drive-ins took far too long to just get your order wrong and attracted “unsavory” clientele (teens), the McDonald brothers had a technique that churned out a quality product in mere seconds (for the customer). Efficiency was fine-tuned down to milliseconds, and not a single action was wasteful. When Kroc saw the whole operation working flawlessly, dollar signs popped into his eyes.
Up to this point in the film – and even a little further – The Founder plays like a Pleasantville business comedy all hyped on winning one for the little guy. Kroc had spent years trying to sell the next big thing (five-quantity mixers, for example), and saw McDonald’s as his big break. He convinces the brothers to let him start franchising McDonald’s by agreeing to their rigid quality standards and design implications, assuring his vigilant devotion to regulations. Kroc commits to building the McDonald’s name as the boys want, and we feel a warmness of new beginnings wash over like biting into a fresh apple pie – hearty, home-cooked success.
That’s when roadblocks begin to frustrate Kroc, as he unleashes the bloodsucking insincerity of a sales-shark stereotype you wish wasn’t real. Kroc’s intentions sour, and shift to increased profits, gimmicks and notoriety. He gets off on magazine photo shoots and red carpet roll-outs, and burns bridges without ever looking back. All those family values and happy jingles can’t hide the bodies left in Kroc’s wake (not actual murders, just broken souls), making for a second and third act that are unexpected, mercenary and coldly disheartening.
The Founder doesn’t change on a dime though, and that’s director John Lee Hancock’s biggest accomplishment. As Keaton subtly transforms into a monopolizing monster, bright aesthetics and jolly score composition make for a biodrama feel that never stops grinning. It’s almost as if you’re not allowed to think of Kroc as a bastard villain, which only makes his actions more vile. A pit forms in your stomach as Kroc’s own personal narrative contorts his view of reality, clashing emotions with Hancock’s delivery to form intriguing, and increasingly seedy undertones. Essentially, a trick is played that unpacks tension without audience acknowledgement – the special sauce of Hancock’s recipe, if you will.
If tone is The Founder‘s secret ingredient, then Michael Keaton represents the meat you crave. His willful balance of ignorance with weasely CEO slickness blends all the *questionable* depths of Kroc’s ambitions (fame, fortune, family, pride). Keaton’s hazy wading through Kroc’s McDonald’s takeover is a dynamic performance that drives moral emptiness, but remains so poisonously watchable. As characters around Kroc become more aware of the sickening wrongs they’re about to endure, Kroc shows absolutely no mercy, compassion or understanding beyond personal gain. This juxtaposition alone of Kroc’s ideals versus the happiness McDonald’s brings almost makes you feel dirty for biting into a Big Mac, but that’s just a testament to Keaton’s performance – and a pretty decent dietary method.
Keaton’s supporting cast are the additional toppings that make for a layered bite (sure, let’s keep the burger metaphor), as performances across the board are Grade-A certified. Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch as Dick and Mac McDonald are two small-business owners with pure hearts, so good at playing against Keaton’s “sinister” CEO. You’ll wretch as Kroc stabs both men directly in their fronts, almost celebrating his absolute bamboozlement of the McDonald’s product.
Same goes for Laura Dern, whose first-wife so desperately wants to be part of Kroc’s life, but he shuts her out based on his own convincing lies. Patrick Wilson, B.J. Novak, Linda Cardellini – all important pieces of the McDonald’s success puzzle, made more necessary by their ability to spotlight Kroc’s ever-growing ego. With real, reasonable people to surround Kroc, he becomes this caricature of big business that is meant to be damning and ruthless and so many other things that’ll make your blood boil – this is Hancock’s intention, hidden under all the discarded burger wrappers and smiling customers.
The Founder is a ponderous film that poses a simple narrative – the beginning of McDonald’s – only to hide a much more intriguing story underneath this food-culture renaissance. John Lee Hancock is less interested in McDonald’s restaurants than he is Ray Kroc, and the biopic he tells is a much pricklier beast for it. Business is savage, and so is this movie. It may be all Happy Meals and crispy, salty fries, but there’s a story of betrayal and power-plays behind the world’s most iconic fast-food chain. Scenes stutter-step at times because of the butting tonal shifts, yet more often than not, Hancock’s commitment to hidden horrors presents an invasive take on the duality of “good vs. evil.” It’s a dramatic chameleon, but dammit if the camouflage isn’t hiding one hell of a story where you least expect it.
The Founder unwraps a much darker story than anticipated, as Michael Keaton bites into the cut-throat takeover that granted Ray Kroc and the McDonald's brand its infamous reputation.