8 out of 10
Michael Keaton as Ray Kroc
Directed by John Lee Hancock
The Founder Review
We get the best and the worst of capitalism in The Founder – the invigorating rush of seeing a good idea take root and become successful, and then the salacious nature of greed run amok and its capacity to overcome the better angels of our nature. Michael Keaton navigates us through all its facets – we root for his Ray Kroc to succeed, and then when he succumbs to his petty jealousies, self-indulgences, and selfish wants we realize we’ve been suckered all along. As a snapshot of America right now, The Founder is uncannily apt. Keaton’s performance is subversive and sly, and with some distance, may go down as one of his very best. Kroc is no bastion of free enterprise; it’s not even his idea that he runs with. But he knows an opportunity when he sees it, and a lot of the thrill of The Founder is wondering what we would have done in his stead, and quietly judging our own character against his.
Speaking of subversive, I love that The Founder was directed by John Lee Hancock, who wouldn’t ordinarily be the director who comes to mind for this kind of material. Hancock is a very good director, but he tends to make more directly emotional films like The Rookie, The Blind Side, or Saving Mr. Banks. And in the beginning, The Founder feels very much like one of those stories, of a little guy with big dreams, and the movie has shades of Frank Capra and Norman Rockwell Americana all through it. But Hancock wisely holds his cards until the film’s second half, when we see the flip side of all that entrepreneurship and go-getter mentality, and how high standards and quality can so easily slip away in the promise of profits and power. But The Founder isn’t obvious about it. When we realize just what kind of person Ray Kroc is, it’s too late, and we feel complicit because we were rooting for this guy before we realized exactly what he was really like.
Ray Kroc (Keaton) is a frustrated shake mixer salesman, working small town hamburger drive-thrus and not being very good at it. But Kroc is no quitter – he knows that if someone would just listen to what he’s pitching, surely he will be able to be successful. He’s not really selling shake mixers anyway; he’s selling himself. But when he receives a large order of mixers from San Bernadino, California, he is intrigued enough to drive across the country to find out about this strangely successful hamburger place. Enter the brothers McDonald. Dick (Nick Offerman) and Mac (John Carroll Lynch) have found the key to success – quality food, but with an almost automated efficiency and low overhead. Gone are the days of expensive drive-thrus and waiting 30 minutes for your food order. No, a McDonald’s hamburger is ready in 30 seconds, and it’s delicious and inexpensive to boot. There’s a line out to the street at McDonald’s, and Ray sees an opportunity to franchise this well-organized enterprise. But Kroc’s eternal chasing of profit conflicts directly with the McDonald brothers’ standards of excellence, and Kroc’s constant traveling and work puts a strain on his marriage to Ethel (Laura Dern).
Keaton isn’t the only actor doing terrific work here. Nick Offerman as Dick McDonald (although I don’t think I can ever get used to him being without his mustache) is funny, earnest, and determined, and ful of eagerness and good old American moxie. He’s not afraid to work hard for his money, which makes Kroc’s exploitation of his skills and his eager vigor even more despicable. John Carroll Lynch as Dick’s brother Mac has enough heart for both McDonalds; he just wants to see Dick’s dreams come true and help him create something that lasts. The rest of the supporting cast is wonderful as well, especially Linda Cardellini and Patrick Wilson as a married couple who want to invest in Kroc’s enterprise. (Patrick Wilson, if you’re familiar with his body of work, plays very much to type here. He seems to have a habit of playing ineffectual, weak-willed men, The Conjuring franchise excepted. He’s a wonderful actor, but he definitely has a template.) The movie has a brisk pace, and while the subject matter can be a little dry at times, Hancock keeps it moving well and the performances are good enough to savor.
But The Founder’s best aspect is the script by Robert Siegel, and at the end credits when his name appeared as the screenwriter, I said, “No wonder this was so good.” Robert Siegel is an expert in exploring both the good and the dark in people, in films like The Wrestler and Big Fan (which he also directed), of finding characters who see themselves as more important than they really are. When suddenly the light of the world shines upon his characters, the choices they make within that light are always fascinating to watch. (And see Big Fan if you haven’t – Patton Oswalt gives a truly great performance in it.)
When The Founder goes down a darker path, it’s Siegel who helps to orchestrate the change in tone, and makes us willing as an audience to follow Ray Kroc even as we begin to despise him. John Lee Hancock, Michael Keaton, and Robert Siegel surreptitiously turn Ray Kroc from a Horatio Algeresque heroic type to the worst aspects of free enterprise and greed, sometimes within a few minutes of each other. The Founder isn’t just about the creation of McDonald’s and everything that historic event means to the America we know now – The Founder chronicles exactly how we got here in the first place, and it’s not so much a window at times as it is a mirror. This is a very good film.