It might not be about Colonel Sanders’ zombie-fighting exploits or the palace intrigue that led to the Burger King usurping the throne, but The Founder is a fascinating fast food-related movie all the same. And better yet – it’s based on a true story.
It is 1954 and Ray Kroc (Keaton) is a travelling salesman, struggling to make a living hawking milkshake machines. His life on the road means he gets to spend little time with his wife Ethel (Dern). Ray gets a surprisingly large order for the machines, from a restaurant in San Bernardino, California called ‘McDonald’s’. Ray meets the restaurant’s owners, brothers Maurice “Mac” (Lynch) and Richard “Dick” McDonald (Offerman). Ray is struck by the ingenuity of this new ‘fast food’ concept, which results in burgers going from grill to counter in 30 seconds. Ray convinces the brothers to franchise, even though their earlier attempt to do so was unsuccessful. Ray overcomes various setbacks in expanding the McDonalds brand, referring to himself as “the founder” of the restaurant chain, as the McDonald brothers realise just what a snake Ray really is.
Director John Lee Hancock, known for The Blind Side and Saving Mr. Banks, has crafted an absorbing, wickedly clever biopic. The Founder has been described as akin to The Social Network, which detailed the behind-the-scenes machinations leading up to the creation of Facebook. The Founder can be viewed as an ode to entrepreneurial spirit, while also being a cautionary tale for anyone about to enter any business arrangement. It’s by turns rousing, fascinating and utterly terrifying. The Founder is a stark reminder that this is a world which rewards ambition, shrewdness and a lack of scruples over decency or goodwill – but the film does so with a smile on its face. A degree of cynicism is to be expected from a movie about a weaselly salesman who hijacks a homegrown business from two brothers, yet The Founder never becomes obnoxiously bleak or caustic in its outlook.
Keaton has repeatedly proven to be adept at playing slime-balls from whom the audience can’t look away. Robert D. Siegel’s screenplay frames Ray as the underdog in its opening act. Ray is lugging about unwieldy milkshake makers, not unlike Will Smith hauling bone density scanners in The Pursuit of Happyness, getting doors slammed in his face. Then, once Ray meets the McDonald brothers and the light bulb goes off in his head, he becomes a villain protagonist. He’s doing the legwork, making impassioned speeches at Masonic lodges and synagogues alike to appeal to potential franchisees, but he also has no qualms taking credit for the ideas of others. Compulsively watchable even as his actions becoming increasingly devious, Keaton is a McMagnet as Ray.
Any time the McDonald brothers are onscreen, one can’t help but feel a tinge of pity for them, having a general idea of how the story ends. The Founder does not portray Dick and Mac merely as hapless fools duped into signing away their baby, and while this movie is primarily The Ray Kroc Story, it does give the McDonald brothers their due. Lynch is affable as the older Mac, while Offerman’s Dick is more guarded and wary. The procedure through which Ray wrested control of McDonald’s from the restaurant’s namesakes is fraught with technicalities and while the nitty-gritties might cause some audience members to tune out, we were riveted throughout. To get an idea of how far away McDonald’s today is from Dick and Mac’s original vision, the brothers baulked at putting the Coca-Cola logo on their menus because it would be too commercial a move.
At first, we view Ray’s neglect of his wife as a necessary sacrifice, and an exigency of the life of a travelling salesman. Then, Ray continues to ignore Ethel’s own wishes and even deceives her. While Dern doesn’t get a lot to do, the pain she projects is heart-rending, making us despise Ray even more. Ray meets Joan (Cardellini), the wife of wealthy restaurateur Rollie Smith (Wilson), and is immediately drawn to her. The film’s depiction of the relationship between Ray and Joan is nuanced rather than tawdry. And yes, this is yet another emasculated character for Wilson to add to his résumé.
Many reviewers have drawn parallels between Ray Kroc and the current President of the United States of America, Donald Trump. Both are charming wheeler-dealers who screwed over a great many people in their respective paths to success, but at least as depicted in The Founder, Ray is more interesting than Trump. The Founder rides on Keaton’s ability to enthusiastically essay smarminess, and there’s something beguiling about these dirty machinations unfolding against the backdrop of “simpler times”. The corporate intrigue behind McDonald’s might not be the most exciting topic on which to base a biopic, but The Founder emerges as an absorbing and unexpectedly timely work.
Summary: Michael Keaton’s portrayal of self-proclaimed McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc brims with his signature charisma, keeping this insightful biopic entertaining even when it gets mired in business jargon.
RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars