Maybe Watch This: The Founder

There’s a family story I’ve heard at holidays and cookouts since I was a kid. A joke, really. And that’s the story that my great grandmother went to high school with Ray Kroc, founder of McDonald’s. Had she played her cards differently, we might all be in very different circumstances today. Imagine! Heirs to the Golden Arches!

Revisiting the story after seeing The Founder, the film version of how Kroc (Michael Keaton) ushered McDonald’s from a single burger joint to, well, world domination, it’s clear the whole Boyle clan dodged a bullet.

The Founder has been on my radar for at least six months now, and for a brief moment it was slated to hit theaters in time for awards consideration. Delaying a film’s release until January is never a good sign, and after seeing the film I can understand why the studio made the move. Though its parts, on paper, should add up to a compelling if conflicted biopic…they just don’t.

Keaton does well with what material he has from writer Robert Siegel (The Wrestler) and director John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side, Saving Mr. Banks). The problem is, it’s ultimately a pretty shitty story they have to tell, about a scheming opportunist who finds cracks and loopholes through which to wrestle control of a family business and make his fortune, leaving his wife for someone else along the way.

A struggling milkshake machine salesman who, we learn, hasn’t had much luck with any of his hair-brained schemes, Kroc gets an order for half a dozen of the things from a shop in Southern California. Assuming it’s an error before calling to confirm it’s not, he makes his way out west to see the operation for himself. There, he meets Mac and Dick McDonald, the brothers who run the walk-up food stand and have literally created the fast food assembly line, each burger ready less than thirty seconds after ordering. It’s their very own “burger ballet.”

Intrigued, Kroc takes the brothers to dinner to learn more, where they share, through a series of on-screen flashbacks and great brotherly banter (Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch), just how they went from aspiring film producers to engineering a whole new on-the-go food service industry. And that’s the movie I wish I’d seen.

These guys are the real deal: honest, hardworking entrepreneurs who, with a few bumps along the way, innovated a world-changing business model without sacrificing quality or integrity. Kroc, we come to learn, is none of that. The rest of the film is a series of awkward character introductions and forced exposition all over a heavy-handed score that never quite gels with what’s on screen.

And yet, I can’t entirely dismiss the film. It’s more valuable than I give it credit for, if only as a cautionary tale. While exposing Kroc’s cunning business style, the film reminds us that he is ultimately a success – at least in American Dream terms. His suits slowly go from shabby and wrinkled to tailored and crisp. He moves into a grand house, joins posh golf clubs, upgrades to a more fashionable wife. For a certain type of man at a certain time in American history, this was exactly the great America they wanted to make for themselves. Watching it today, though, I can’t help leaving the theater feeling a little…icky. All while craving a cheeseburger.

The Founder dir. John Lee Hancock; written by Robert Siegel; starring Michael Keaton, Nick Offerman, John Carroll Lynch, Laura Dern, BJ Novak, Patrick Wilson, Linda Carindelli

Passes the Bechdel Test: No
Passes the DuVernay Test: No