The Founder‘s middling reception was unsurprising. Like a 99p cheeseburger, it came packaged the way you expect – a biopic doused with baby boomer nostalgia, an overpowering central performance begging for awards recognition, and photos of cast members fading into their real life equivalents just before the credits roll. John Lee Hancock’s usual anonymous direction helped the perception that The Founder was an also-ran in The Class of 2016. Hidden Figures, Lion, and Hacksaw Ridge trod the red carpets while this had the rug pulled from under it. But despite, and because of, its shortcomings, The Founder has more intrigue than its ‘Based on a True Story’ peers; a battle of art and commerce reaching beyond the film itself.
If the title invokes a cult, check out Ray Kroc’s (Michael Keaton) opening two-minute monologue. He’s a quick-talking salesman with hypnotic charisma. He could probably sell water to Seaworld given the chance. Unfortunately for him, the product he hawks is crap – a hefty milkshake machine which arches his back whenever he lugs it around. Ray’s success at any point can be gauged through the size of his house and, as everyone keeps telling him “no”, he and his wife Ethel (Laura Dern) barely fit in the kitchen together. His grit and enthusiasm alone should make him a millionaire, if only he had the right opportunity…
Ray’s first substantial sale comes from a Dick (Nick Offerman) and Mac McDonald (John Carroll Lynch) of San Bernardino, California. Kroc visits their restaurant and finds himself dazzled straight away by its ‘fast food’ operation. A steamed ham served in thirty-seconds instead of thirty minutes? He takes the brothers to dinner, already knowing his future lies in expanding this concept to unimaginable levels.
Dick and Mac typify the American dream. Working class sons of immigrants, they have tried, failed, and failed better. Even McDonald’s – their third known venture after leaving behind a hot dog stand and a cinema – struggled in the early days, but the brothers preserved until their groundbreaking ideas translated into customers. The Founder flashes back to them perfecting the enclosed cooking area by herding the staff like sheep in a tennis court. While this has a mad-scientist vibe to it, the facelessness of those they command shows capitalism at its worst. Dick and Mac brag of their innovation to Ray; but they, and the film, skate over the sudden pressure and lowered working conditions of the underpaid staff. All the scene does, coupled with how they spend most of the time cooped up in an office isolated from everybody else, is paint a picture of two introverted men.
Kroc exploits Dick and Mac’s inward nature for his own gain. He wedges into the business following a sales pitch where he claims the McDonald’s name, of Gaelic origin, “is America” (how right he became). Ray signs a contract and begins playing a long game, franchising the business and its products at such a rapid pace in order to overwhelm the brothers. Mac views Ray’s activity as over-enthusiasm; Dick correctly spots something more cynical going on and, like with those milkshake machines, Ray keeps being told “no”. This time, he ignores that word.
Curiously, banal scenes of Kroc and Ethel’s slow descent into Divorceville notwithstanding, The Founder stays on Ray’s side for longer than expected. Sometimes we are meant to admire him for pushing back at two men gripped by the fear of failure. Kroc’s the aspirational one, the dreamer, the James Bond of commerce, the wooing businessman and politician. But he also repeatedly sheds his skin. Think of him as a conservative Jordan Belfort – we do not truly meet the man behind the bravado. Ray’s downfall never happens, $500 million personal net worth thank you very much, but The Founder highlights his corruptive streak. His ego skyrockets, he surrounds himself around lawyers and accountants, and words such as ‘corporation’ and ‘real estate’ creep in. The Founder almost condemns Kroc’s actions as he screws Dick and Mac out of $100 million of royalties per year, but it gets too wrapped up in trivial matters like milkshakes to fully do so.
A weirdly-emphasised subplot, Kroc and the brothers argue over the merits of substituting their ice-cream based milkshake recipe in favour of an instant powder solution. The latter saves millions of dollars but would fly against Dick’s ideals of running a wholesome, family restaurant. Ray goes ahead and changes it without permission, and taunts them by sending a strawberry sachet to their office. Compared to McDonald’s other discretions – quote Fast Food Nation: “(there) lies a simple explanation for why eating a hamburger can now make you seriously ill: there is shit in the meat” – this hardly constitutes a scandal. Yet, The Founder then stresses at the end how McDonald’s later reintroduced ice-cream into their milkshakes. It’s a head-scratching footnote, one that seems mandated at a corporate level as the clarification is missing from the original screenplay.
The more Kroc utilises his newfound riches, the further the film distances McDonald’s the entity from all blame. This is a microcosm of the reality in which their burgers are “the best… I’ve ever had in my life”. The neon yellow of the golden arches at night places The Founder in the same canon as McDonald’s twee promos; any semblance of art ground into propaganda. However, at least the film wears its obvious compromises and interference on its sleeve. Instead of trying to bait emotion like typical Oscar fodder, The Founder shrugs its shoulders and, circumstances be damned, presents a well-told story of Ray Kroc’s deceitful nature. In a strange way, this extended McDonald’s commercial is perhaps the most honest film seen on the silver screen since Mac and Me.
What did you think of this film? Let us know on Twitter, on Facebook or in comments below.