The Founder, believe it or not, won’t have you craving a Big Mac, fries, and a shake once the credits roll. In fact, you may find yourself thinking about swearing the stuff off.
Not because the film focuses on the food — this isn’t Super Size Me. In fact, it isn’t at all a celebration of McDonald’s or anything the franchise currently provides.
Rather, it’s a celebration of the virtue without which the current McDonald’s fast-food empire would not have been possible: persistence.
Michael Keaton’s portrayal of McDonald’s master franchiser Ray Kroc is the very embodiment of persistence. His eventual triumph, the film posits, stands as a testament to the importance of persistence, almost to the exclusion of all other virtues.
Nothing wrong with that, right? Well …
What’s it about?
In 1954, Ray Kroc (Keaton) was a struggling traveling salesman trying to sell milkshake mixers to Illinois-area drive-ins. Pounding pavement day after day for an uninspiring product was taking its toll, both on Kroc and his marriage. He needed a win, badly.
Then something truly unexpected occurs. He gets an unbelievable order from a restaurant all the way in San Bernadino, California, one so outrageous that he drives all the way out there to confirm it.
What he discovers there dazzles him. After experiencing time and again the slow and often-inept service of drive-ins, he finds a restaurant operation built on assembly line speed and efficiency.
The restaurant is McDonald’s, conceived, owned, and operated by the McDonald brothers, Mac (John Carroll Lynch) and Dick (Nick Offerman). As Kroc learns Mac and Dick’s story, he sees enormous potential, so much so that he can’t get it out of his mind.
Mac and Dick initially resist Kroc’s desire to do business and expand the McDonald’s brand. Every idea Kroc pitches they’d already tried, after all, with unsatisfactory results.
But eventually, Kroc’s persistence wins them over. They draw up a contract they feel will protect their control over their name and their product, and for a while, it works.
But there’s a saying about contracts, one that Kroc eventually quotes to an enraged Dick McDonald over the phone at a pivotal moment.
“Contracts are like hearts,” Kroc says. “They’re made to be broken.”
An empire is born.
Persistence of vision
Audiences watching The Founder may be somewhat surprised at just how little the script and director John Lee Hancock (Saving Mr. Banks) “sugarcoat” Kroc’s story.
Was he a genius? Not particularly. Was he a good guy or a great husband? Hardly.
Instead, the script by Robert Siegel (The Wrestler) depicts Kroc as driven and single-minded to the point of obsession. He was out to out-work and out-hustle everyone else, especially when no one else saw the potential he could so easily see.
That kind of dogged determination can, of course, yield tremendous rewards. It’s at the cornerstone of the American “can-do” work ethic.
But it can also render values such as loyalty, humility, and integrity into inconveniences. It can destroy lives and leave relationships in the dust.
The Founder depicts Kroc as committing all of the above. Does that make him a villain? Depends on your point of view.
The fact that the film doesn’t completely vilify Kroc is a testament to the subtlety of Siegel’s script and Hancock’s own vision for the story. There’s no morality bludgeon here, and the film is better for that.
Keaton sneaks up on you
Naturally, The Founder either lives or dies by how much audiences buy into Keaton as Kroc. Fair to say the actor gives his all and the effort should stand among his very best.
What’s remarkable about this performance, however, is that it sneaks up on you. Yes, Keaton adopts certain speech affectations and mannerisms to “become” Kroc, and those affectations aren’t subtle.
But in the early going, Keaton doesn’t completely disappear into the role. His innate likability still shines through, and that serves the film well early on. Even if you know where the story’s going, you may find yourself still rooting for Kroc, at least at the start.
It’s only later in the film, when the nastier side of Kroc’s ambition and persistence manifest, that Keaton’s transformation is complete. The actor disappears. What’s left is Ray Kroc, for better or worse.
Count The Founder among 2017’s growing list of must-see films based on real-life stories. Keaton’s performance is stellar, and he makes the story here even more fascinating.
Can it be viewed as inspirational? Sure, but do note that this is also without question a “Nice Guys Finish Last” story. It’s not all just grit, determination, and persistence that yield the super-sized rewards here.
It’s the same trait made infamous by Keyser Söze more than 20 years ago in The Usual Suspects. It’s the ruthless will to do what the other guy won’t.
Chew on that thought for a minute, then ask yourself if you want fries with that.
Starring Michael Keaton, Nick Offerman, John Carroll Lynch, Linda Cardellini, Patrick Wilson, B.J. Novak, and Laura Dern. Directed by John Lee Hancock.
Running Time: 115 minutes
Rated PG-13 for brief strong language.