Once thought to have been a serious contender for 2016 awards consideration, “The Founder” seemingly had everything going for it: a director who had previously lead Sandra Bullock to Oscar glory, a lead actor who had starred in the two previous Best Picture winners, a rogue’s gallery of supporting actors any filmmaker would give their left arm for, and a topic which features probably the most famous eatery in the world. Yet, the film never quite equals the sum of its parts, in large part to the singular problem that it’s rather hard to make a compelling film about a complete asshole.
If you’re over 40, you already know the general story about Ray Kroc and McDonald’s. Traveling salesman, discovers a small fast-food restaurant outside Los Angeles, turns it in to the largest restaurant in the nation. “The Founder” attempts to fill in the blanks.
If you need a charming guy to try and win sympathy for your shit-heel lead character, you’re not going to find anyone in America better than Michael Keaton. Because the audience really needs to be on Kroc’s side for the entire ride. As we meet Kroc, it’s 1954. He’s in his early 50s, and he’s finding it hard to sell multi-spindle milkshake mixers to various roadside eateries around the mid-west. When his secretary informs him of a large sale to a single place in California, he drives all the way from Illinois to find out who these customers are. There he meets brothers Richard “Dick” and Maurice “Mac” McDonald (played respectively by Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch), who have come up with a new way of serving food quickly and efficiently. Impressed with his quick tour, Kroc invites the brothers out to dinner, so he can hear their story. In the film’s single best sequence, Dick and Mac piggy-back off each other to tell Kroc how their little burger joint came to exist. Kroc is so impressed, he tries to talk the brothers in to letting him start to franchise the concept. Despite some initial hesitation (the brothers have already tried to franchise the concept and failed miserably), Dick and Mac get on board with the pushy, persuasive Kroc, and the rest of the film shows how Kroc quickly turns this one store operation in to one of the largest corporations in American history.
If there is an audience for “The Founder,” it is college students majoring in business. Robert Siegel’s script, based off Kroc’s own autobiography as well as an unauthorized Kroc biography, breaks the art of business down to the nitty gritty. How important is it to win at all costs? Is a contract really like a heart in that it’s made to be broken? Can you make friends with business associates? What business are you really in? At one point, Kroc has started building a successful business model but he’s still pretty damn broke and close to losing his home and his business. Enter Harry J. Sonneborn (B.J. Novak), an executive at Tastee-Freeze who meets Kroc by chance in a bank, who brings that last question home for Kroc. What business are you really in? It’s not until Sonneborn, who eventually became the first President of Chief Executive of McDonalds, enters the picture that Kroc finally finds the success he’s been so eager to achieve.
In many ways, Kroc is the Steve Jobs of his day. Ray Kroc didn’t create McDonald’s. He didn’t create their Speedie system of food preparation. He didn’t come up with the Golden Arches. He didn’t create any of the signature meals McDonald’s is known for. He didn’t create Ronald McDonald. But what Ray Kroc did do was sell the image of his company to potential investors and to the world. And in Keaton, Kroc gets the public surrogate he hasn’t had since his passing in 1984. And Keaton is damn good as Kroc. Kroc screwed the McDonald brothers over time and time again, but Keaton and Hancock and Siegel masterfully can make you feel that somehow it’s the brothers’ who are partially at fault for all the things that happen to them. Kroc screws over his wife Ethel (Laura Dern), who lovingly has stuck by her man through thick and (mostly) thin, and screws over one of his franchisees, Rollie Smith (Patrick Wilson), by coveting Smith’s wife Joan (Linda Cardellini), who would eventually become Kroc’s third wife, yet Keaton’s charm and winning history with audiences makes you begrudgingly accept Kroc while he keeps doing these horrible things to the people around him.
The film didn’t do very well when it was released this past January. Perhaps there never was going to be a great release window for the film. It’s likely that “The Founder” will find its audience in the months and years to come. It won’t become a cult film, but it is a film that practically anyone can sit down and watch, and go “hey, that wasn’t so bad” when they’re done watching it. And sometimes, not being that bad can be a pretty good thing.
“The Founder” might not tell the full and complete story of Ray Kroc, the McDonald brothers and the history of the brand, but what this “Based on a true story” does share with audiences should keep viewers engaged for the length of the movie. I’d call that a win.Rating: B