Micheal Keaton plays Ray Kroc who, at the beginning of The Founder, is a down on his luck milkshake machine salesman and appears to be on the verge of a breakdown; he’ll remind you of Willy Loman. His wife Ethel (Laura Dern) is supportive to the point where she attempts to pump him up every time he comes home after no sales. Then, Kroc had the cold-call that changes his life. After another day of zero sales, he goes and checks his messages and sees that a restaurant in California has ordered multiple mixers for their shakes. Kroc called to verify the order and realizes that there is something special going on at this restaurant and decides to check it out. He’s astonished when he pulls up to the establishment, McDonald’s, and it’s slammed.
Richard and Maurice McDonald (Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch) are extremely friendly to Mr. Kroc and offer him a tour of the facility. The film then takes a sad turn as it moves from a tale of innovation to a tale of betrayal as Kroc rips the McDonald’s brand away from the all too trusting brothers and buys them out for a ludicrously small sum of money with nothing written promising royalties.
Micheal Keaton seems incredibly at ease playing flawed male characters. In Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), he played Riggan, a former superstar who is now an alcoholic and fallen on hard times. The Founder has Keaton steps into the role of Ray Kroc, a man who starts off as an unsuccessful salesman to becoming a megalomaniac. Kroc’s flaw isn’t his desire to achieve the American dream; it’s his lack of empathy for those he would destroy along the way. There was no boundaries he wouldn’t cross and no back he wouldn’t stab.
Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch play the McDonald brothers who are bound to making ethical business choices rather than ones that could make the most money. Offerman plays Richard McDonald and goes toe to toe with Keaton’s Kroc at different junctures. Richard is on to what type of person Kroc is but won’t do what it takes to get rid of him. Lynch and Offerman are critical parts of this film because to see how unethical Kroc was, you have to see how ethically driven these brothers are. A terrific moment is when Ray wants to cut costs nationwide for the stores by going to powdered milkshakes and gets into a shouting match with Richard who compares having milkshakes with no milk to living in Nazi Germany. His performance is the best I’ve seen from Offerman in any feature film, striking that appropriate balance of a man who was bound to his core beliefs and someone who wasn’t willing to take crap from people who questioned his methods.
Direction and Writing:
John Lee Hancock directs The Founder and is best known for his work directing The Blind Side and Saving Mr. Banks. Hancock focuses on the minutia of how McDonald’s grew into the giant it is today. That’s fine if audiences went to business school, but the focus should have been more so on Kroc and his relationship with the franchise owners as well as the McDonald brothers. It’s fine and dandy to know that he built his empire on buying the land for each establishment, but I want to know how he got with the franchise owners wife shortly after they signed a deal to open a restaurant. It’s wonderful to know that the McDonald brothers ended up making 1.5 million dollars off of their own name, but I want to know what happened after they realized he was opening a restaurant right across from them weeks later. There was an even better movie that they could have made had they shifted the focus both in both the directing and writing.
The Founder is a good film that could have easily been an impeccable one. While Micheal Keaton does a remarkable job and Offerman is the best I’ve ever seen in a feature film, this film gets in its own way. The most interesting part of this story wasn’t the business behind Kroc’s rise to the top, it was all the people he trampled on along the way. Hancock and writer Robert D. Siegel should have seen that.
No one who is planning on seeing the film will be dissatisfied with the final product. If anything, most will leave with more questions than they had before which is a sure sign that there’s more to the story that wasn’t told.