Review by Eric Hillis
Directed by: John Lee Hancock
Starring: Michael Keaton, Nick Offerman, John Carroll Lynch, Linda Cardellini, BJ Novak, Laura Dern, Patrick Wilson
In August of 1989 the Berlin Wall came tumbling down. Five months later the first Russian McDonald's franchise opened in Moscow, serving 30,000 Muscovites on its opening day alone. Russians were hungry for a taste of the west, and nothing symbolises capitalism like those iconic Golden Arches. A Big Mac is arguably more American than Apple Pie, and only Coke rivals Mickey D in terms of recognisably American products. But where did it all begin for this global behemoth?
John Lee Hancock's The Founder takes us back to 1954 and introduces us to lowly catering equipment salesman Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton). His attempts to sell a milkshake dispenser are hitting a wall until he receives an order for six machines from a San Bernardino, California fast food restaurant. Curious as to why a diner might need so much equipment, Kroc heads out to the establishment, McDonald's, and discovers a revolution in food service, with customers receiving their food a mere 30 seconds after placing their orders.
After meeting with the McDonald brothers - Mac (John Carroll Lynch), the heart of the operation, and Dick (Nick Offerman), the brains of the outfit - Kroc convinces the duo to take him on as franchise manager and turn a suburban diner into a nationwide chain. The more ambitious Kroc's plans for the franchise become, the more he comes into conflict with the brothers, and he soon realises McDonald's may have to break free from the men who gave it that recognisable name if its to fulfil its potential.
Throughout The Founder, I never felt I was watching Ray Kroc so much as I was watching Michael Keaton, but the actor has an energy that's sorely lacking elsewhere in this otherwise pedestrian, televisual production. Hancock's direction thankfully resists the sub-Scorsese freeze frames, voiceovers and period music montages we've seen in recent true life tales of scurrilous hucksters - American Hustle, War Dogs, Gold - but it's stunted by a lack of visual drive, with too much of the story spelled out in conversations held in backroom offices and hotel lobbies.
A cliche in cinematic stories of ruthless men is the 'wife as obstacle' trope. Here, Laura Dern is saddled with the thankless role of Mrs Kroc, who lacks belief in her husband's plans; she's a character who adds nothing to the narrative. Things aren't much better for Linda Cardellini as Joan Smith, the wife of a McDonald's franchise owner (Patrick Wilson) who flirts incessantly with Kroc, sharing his hunger for power. A post-credits info dump tells us Smith married Kroc, but in the film itself we never see their relationship progress beyond making googly-eyes across dinner tables.
The Founder repeatedly introduces characters and ideas it doesn't know what to do with. There's a fascinating subtext about how Kroc, the son of Czech immigrants, is driven to attain the WASPish McDonald's name as a means of becoming accepted as an 'American', having struggled to fit in at his local country club, but it's dispensed like a ketchup stained serviette. Increasingly with biopics, I find myself wondering if they might fare better as cable TV mini-series, with the extra running time available to expand on such themes. At under two hours, Hancock and screenwriter Robert D. Siegel attempt to cram too much into The Founder's running time. They should have kept it simple, like, you know, a McDonald's menu.
The Founder is in UK/ROI cinemas February 17th.