‘The Founder’ Suffers from a Lack of Nerve

The Founder,” directed by John Lee Hancock and written by Robert Siegel, attempts to demystify the creation of one of our most important and influential American institutions: McDonald’s. The film is buoyed by a dynamic performance from Michael Keaton as Ray Kroc, but often refuses to delve deep into the man’s soul.

Ray Kroc is a travelling salesman when we first see him in the mid-1950s. He’s driving throughout the South to hawk a high speed milkshake mixer with little success. Kroc has been relatively successful, enough so to have a nice house and provide for his wife, Ethel (the criminally underused Laura Dern). But he still lacks confidence and hasn’t mastered the art of the sale: he lugs around his heavy mixer during his pitches to drive-in owners without realizing how much of a fool he looks carrying it.

When a burger stand named McDonald’s in San Bernardino orders not one, but six of his milkshake mixers, Kroc is curious as to how anyone could do enough business to need that many mixers. The business he finds is a wonder of efficiency—burgers are done on an assembly line, always the same and to exact specifications, and served to customers within 30 seconds. The original stand, run by Mac McDonald (John Carroll Lynch) and Dick McDonald (Nick Offerman), gives Kroc hope. He talks the brothers into letting him turn their restaurants into a franchise, under the stipulations that they have to approve any changes to the way they’re run, and he has to keep franchisees up to their standards.

And that works—for a little while. But after getting his first real taste of success, and seeing nearly unlimited potential, Kroc tries to start expanding at a great pace and further economizing the restaurants, making them closer to the McDonald’s we know today. Dick fights him every step of the way. He and Mac never really had any desire to expand, just to run a single burger stand exactly how they liked it.

Michael Keaton is often electrifying on screen. Keaton digs into the false confidence of a salesman who fears that he’ll never succeed at anything. There’s a certain poignancy to the early scenes with Kroc—it’s hard not to compare the struggling Kroc to Keaton himself, who almost completely disappeared from mainstream films until his recent resurgence with two back-to-back Best Picture Oscar winners. Kroc’s loneliness and uncertainty is on full display as he listens to motivational records in his lonely hotel rooms on the road.

“The Founder” comes into its own when Kroc realizes he has a success on his hands. Keaton adopts a wild-eyed stare, halfway between a mad man and a wolf ready to swallow its prey. It’s at this halfway point that the film reveals the weaknesses of its first half. The Ray Kroc of the ascending burger chain is a liar and a cheat and a megalomaniac. But it seems unlikely that all of those traits arise just the results of success — they’re the cause of success. Kroc’s early time in the wilderness is treated too much like the standard sentimental biopic. It focuses on the obstacles he has to overcome, but fails to be critical about the man.

“The Founder” seems to be lacking in nerve for half its run time. The latter half, where power and fame drive Kroc to destroy his business partners, effectively exposes the dark origins of an omnipresent corporation. But the first half is too deferential to myths. Part of that is due to Robert Siegel’s screenplay, in particularly a scene where the McDonald brothers explain how they created their efficient kitchen. The scene is full of fast talking and explications of process, much like an Aaron Sorkin script, but it’s completely lacking in the wit that characterizes Sorkin’s work. It’s fine to highlight the balletic interplay of words, but the words have to be about something special, not just a flat description of how a kitchen works.

There’s no sense of the role that McDonald’s would come to play in American culture. It’s to the filmmakers’ credit that they don’t give us a scene of a fat kid eating two cheeseburgers to obtusely point out the restaurant’s role in American obesity, but it would have been a sharper film to consider the impact of McDonald’s beyond its ubiquity. The film suggests that people working at McDonald’s locations had good jobs and the possibility of advancement. If that’s the case, it would have been fertile ground to consider how these things have changed.

In addition to these missed opportunities, “The Founder” fails its female characters. Laura Dern, one of the greatest female actors of her generation, is barely given anything to do in this film other than sullenly sit around at home while Kroc is out on the road. There are also a few lines she delivers that sound stilted and under-rehearsed, most likely the product of an inattentive director who fails to guide her to a better performance. Linda Cardellini plays Joan, Kroc’s second wife, who apparently worked closely with him on his restaurant empire, but the film mostly skirts past that potentially interesting relationship. There’s no real consideration of how his first marriage began to crumble, or how his second marriage came to be. What conversations would Kroc have with his first wife after asking for a divorce? What conversations would he have with his new wife, who was also married at the time? These storylines would have allowed us to delve deeper into Kroc’s mind and potentially illuminated how Kroc the salesman becomes Kroc the successful businessman and potential psychopath.

“The Founder” bends and sags at the middle, like a soggy McDonald’s fry. Even as its latter half is a more biting look at Kroc’s life, too much of the film is just a standard biopic. The McDonald’s corporation could edit the movie at the halfway point and just show the first hour or so as corporate propaganda. Keaton is such a great actor that it’s a shame he’s forced to only show what he can do for half a movie.

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