Director: John Lee Hancock
Stars: Michael Keaton, John Carroll Lynch, Nick Offerman
It’s not unreasonable to say that McDonald’s restaurants changed America, and by extension changed the world. The business model prioritising speed of service over all else drawn up by brothers Mac and Dick McDonald reshaped the food industry. It changed the way people thought about eating out. About eating in general. It changed the value of production and it redrew consumer expectations.
So it’s not unreasonable for that change to be scruitinsed by cinema. John Lee Hancock’s film casts Michael Keaton as the entrepreneurial milkshake machine salesman Ray Kroc who, in 1954, stumbles across the modest burger business already established by the brothers McDonald (John Carroll Lynch and Nick Offerman – a dream duo). They’ve already implemented the profound change to food production and to great success in their key location, but have floundered at franchising the idea due to poor quality control and mismanagement at their additional sites. Kroc is inspired by the idea and pushes them to reconsider, asking for their faith in him. A contract is drawn up. Kroc goes to work, in the process whittling away at the ideals held by his worrying partners.
Mac and Dick are depicted as underdogs, masterminds with a lot of heart in the game, ambitious but modest (comparatively). It is Kroc who takes their economic evolution and spins it into a national sensation, but his process is shrewd and ugly, driven by ego and an insatiable greed that muddies the wholesomeness at the core of the original endeavour. The Founder is clear to suggest that Kroc’s voraciousness laid the foundation for the nastiness to come; geographic saturation, zero hour contracts; everything about McDonald’s restaurants that we associate with suffocating capitalism. Kroc is the founder in a sense; the founder of a style of business that is admired by some, reviled by others.
Hancock’s film gives the strong appearance of an admirer. It employs slow motion to expand time when a boy bites into a delicious burger. It romanticises Kroc lecherously contemplating infidelity. When things turn sour it levies with light, tinkling music. The Founder has already been called – repeatedly it seems – an expression of Trump-era cinema. It feels a little premature to start turning the present into a legacy (what’s more it also suggests that this film will be remembered outside of critic’s circles; I’m not so sure).
Keaton’s Kroc is your typical door-to-door shyster who peddles values to appeal to his audiences when the real end game is money and notoriety. His eagerness to establish the McDonald’s brand nationwide is an effort to legitimise himself after years of failures and a growing sense of dissatisfaction at home (wife: Laura Dern – underused). As per Robert Siegel’s script, his unscrupulous methodology goes against the more laudable value system held dear by the McDonald brothers. They balk at his suggestion to bring in Coca-Cola. His reaction to their “however” is a mark of the man beneath the charming smile. Later he is bolshy and belligerent when not getting his own way. Of course he doesn’t do it alone. But when it comes to his greatest moral dilemma, the film allows him only seconds of brow-furrowing before he sells out, smiling.
Maybe I was wrong… does that remind you of anybody?
It raises an interesting question about the value of values. Is what McDonald’s turned into bad because it is crass? Is the success of Kroc’s methodology a failure of laudable intention? Have the better angels of our nature been shouted down?
The suggestion here that Kroc performed every role imaginable for McDonald’s seems like a lot to swallow; another example of the film’s tendency to aggrandise the man when the story suggests that drilling down into the darker shades might’ve yielded more complex and intriguing results, and something more resonant. It almost gets there in the final stages, as his practices become more and more odious, but still there’s an insistence on making these choices seem breezy, lamentable but inevitable. Perhaps that’s to be praised, but the film ultimately feels pedestrian and a little timid.
The Founder covets America’s post-war boom, basks in the nostalgia of a country in love with itself. America loves dramatising its own history and people, but there seems an up-swerve in depicting these things in an overtly sentimental manner, bypassing the nitty-gritty in favour of the feel-good.
Again, is that a bad thing? Don’t we all want something easy? Here it may even be fitting considering the subject. This is cinema as fast-food. Quick. Direct. Forgettable. The Founder is, as the McDonald brothers might put it, a little crass. Disposable. Consume it, don’t think about it, move on. Go figure.