There is a strong whiff of classical tragedy about John Lee Hancock’s The Founder, a true life-inspired drama about the McDonald brothers (Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch) who unwisely trust entrepreneur Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton) with their revolutionary fast food enterprise and lose out in the process. On the face of it, a feature film about the origins of junk food giant McDonalds may not seem too appealing. Thanks to a strong, character-focused script by Robert Siegel (The Wrestler) and engaging performances across the board, it all turns out to be pretty riveting stuff.
It all starts with milkshake machine salesperson Ray Kroc, struggling to make sales, becoming curious as to why one small restaurant chain in California is ordering so many machines. Spontaneously driving across the continental USA to inspect their lead outlet, he finds brothers Dick (Offerman) and Mac (Lynch) have invented an all-new production line-style method for cooking burgers and fries. Wanting in on a can’t-lose proposition, Ray convinces the McDonalds to let him franchise out their operation across America.
The Founder is a story about how rapacious capitalism destroys small business. Its drama comes not from unexpected surprises, but instead their polar opposite. Everything than happens is infused with a dreadful, sickening inevitability. Dick and Mac care deeply about providing a high quality, family friendly service. Ray cares deeply about making money. As Ray’s priorities make him richer and more powerful, Dick and Mac’s consistently weaken their position until a small business they personally ran becomes a corporate empire that is dragging them in its wake. It is a story that should make its audience angry. It is supposed to make us angry.
Something I have regularly appreciated with Hancock’s films is his strong focus on characters. He is an excellent director of reality-inspired fiction, because he always centres them on realistic people who if not sympathetic are at least charismatic. The dynamic of Ray Kroc struggling with the McDonald brothers is in many ways reflective of a similar dynamic Hancock employed in Saving Mr Banks (2013). That film pitted film executive Walt Disney against Mary Poppins author Pamela Travers. Both wanted what they felt was the best for Travers’ novel, but for each success looked decidedly different. Likewise, every key player in the creation of the McDonalds empire wants what is best, but their individual ideas of success differ wildly.
If Hollywood cinema has taught its audience anything over the last century and change, it is to buy into the myth of American exceptionalism: the idea that the individual American is so innately better than the average human being that they can ultimately succeed at anything they put their mind towards. The Founder tricks us. It selects as its core protagonist not Dick and Mac McDonald but Kroc. We encounter him doggedly, and mostly unsuccessfully, trying to shift over-priced milkshake machines to small corner stores and burger joints across America. He is the archetypal and aspirational everyperson, and everything we see of Kroc in The Founder‘s opening act primes us to treat him as a hero. We know that he will succeed too, since modern-day McDonalds restaurants are everywhere. Michael Keaton’s performance is typically funny and slightly idiosyncratic too, and that immediately impresses on us to like Ray Kroc. We want to see him succeed, and get sucked into The Founder because we want to see how he does it.
As the film progresses, our sympathy rapidly shifts to the McDonalds. It is a pair of enormously strong performances, made more impressive than the actors giving them. Both Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch are generally regarded as comedic actors, via Parks & Recreation and Anchorman respectively. To see both of them playing a straight drama, and with such strong interplay is a delight. Other cast members include Patrick Wilson, Linda Cardellini, and Laura Dern – although Dern’s role as Kroc’s long-suffering wife feels too slight and would have benefited from some extra attention.
There is not a lot of suspense to The Founder, because we know where it ends. The film compensates for that lack of urgency with a smart screenplay, strong acting, and a slightly unusual shift in character. It is an engaging and passionate condemnation of runaway capitalism, and of preferring money and wealth over simple human dignity.