The Founder: Directed by John Lee Hancock; starring Michael Keaton, Nick Offerman, John Carroll Lynch, Laura Dern, Linda Cardellini
A film like The Founder illustrates what happens when the success you hope for rolls in beyond your wildest dreams. Can an entrepreneur remain humble, focused on his larger goals, or become intoxicated by the process of reaching for success and transform hard-charging drive into utter ruthlessness?
In The Founder, veteran actor Michael Keaton plays legendary businessman Ray Kroc, the man who didn’t invent McDonald’s — the restaurant chain he helmed that became the progenitor of the fast food concept and, ultimately, one of the 20th century’s great mega-corporations.
Though Kroc tried, at one time, to convince the world otherwise, this Illinois native didn’t create the idea. But, in recognizing its effectiveness, he brilliantly appropriated the McDonald Brothers’ idea of a super-efficient fast-food restaurant. Kroc took their idea, and molded it into his own vision like so much hamburger meat. That’s not to diminish his own creativity; he converted the brothers’ notion of a simple and efficient dining experience into the ultimate franchise.
Serviceably directed by John Lee Hancock (Saving Mr. Banks), this film presents the narrative of how Kroc was transformed from a long-struggling Midwestern salesman into a land developer and hype man for the Horatio Alger-ish American Dream. For him, McDonald’s golden arches replaced or supplanted both flag and church steeple.
Finding the drama in this rags-to-riches tale torn from a business magazine demanded that it turn on a set of emotional convolutions and convulsions. Casting such skillful actors as Keaton, Laura Dern (as first wife Ethel), or Linda Cardellini as Kroc’s second wife Joan Smith, aided in altering what could have been a fairly dry narrative into something lively, even at times, insidious.
Nick Offerman as Richard “Dick” McDonald and John Carroll Lynch as Maurice “Mac” McDonald, provide the perfect foils to Keaton’s Kroc. Where he is relentless, they are thoughtful, even reticent to adapt their core ideas to grow the business. Where they feared movement forward, Kroc willingly offended to get ahead. Kroc felt their reticence to embrace and expand their own ideas, in a way, led him to believe he better appreciated, and thus, deserved to be master of McDonald’s more than they. This validated whatever betrayals were to come.
In turn, he royally screwed them and everyone along the way who didn’t propel his vision forward. While the narrative almost exclusively focused on Kroc’s ascension to fast-food emperor, this film needed something more to make it other than a dark rags-to-riches morality play. It had to get deeper into Kroc’s psyche.
When this former milk shake machine salesman encounters wealthy businessman Rollie Smith (Patrick Wilson) Kroc pays more attention to his wife rather than on Smith, who wants to spend millions to join on the burger train. But the film never explores how she becomes his second and long-lasting wife. By not looking into such emotional complexities, such an omission made this a lesser film; it should have been one that examined who Kroc was beyond being just another ruthless capitalist.
And given the recent inauguration, the film’s release seems either uncanny, ideally strategic, or luckily timed as Trump’s questionable Presidency unfolds. In many ways, Kroc’s success reveals both a positive upside and the dark underbelly to American capitalism. Even though this movie goes about making its case in such a bare-bones, workman-like manner, it remains something worth viewing.
While it presents an opportunity to understand what motivates a legendary capitalist like Kroc, it also, by extension, offers a chance to examine the kind of people these billionaire/millionaire capitalists who about to run Washington are or will be like.