“I believe in God, family, and McDonald’s. And in the office, that order is reversed,” said Ray Kroc – the mastermind behind the multi-billion dollar fast food monopoly that is McDonald’s – and the central subject of John Lee Hancock’s new film, The Founder. Every person upon this planet knows those Golden Arches, but perhaps are unaware of their installation, and the messages they represent. This pedestrian, paint-by-numbers biopic runs in a similar vein to many rival films released theatrically in this quarter (The Imitation Game, The Danish Girl et al); offering a lukewarm cinematic experience, albeit one which plants a fascinating persona at its helm.
Michael Keaton stars as Kroc – a washed-up, middle-aged milkshake machine salesman – who travels up and down the country trying to flog from his car boot. After receiving an order for more machines at one establishment than ever before, he is convinced that an error has been made, and sets off to the Californian coast to investigate. It’s the 1950s, and drive-in dining is all the rage, but Kroc has never seen a restaurant like McDonald’s; a revolutionary (and independent) hamburger retailer which serves up “orders in 30 seconds, not 30 minutes,” as proud co-owner Dick (Nick Offerman) proclaims. He and brother Mac McDonald (John Carroll Lynch) have been chasing their version of the American Dream for many years, and finally they have found a service which separates them from the pack. Kroc simply has to have a piece of the pie. He convinces the siblings to proceed with a franchise deal, and begins to renders an empire by overthrowing those who built the castle.
Working from Robert Siegel’s darkly humorous and often acidic screenplay, The Founder does for Big Macs what The Social Network did for Facebook. It takes a scalpel, and sharply slices through the noise in order to reach the real heart of the drama: money and power. Kroc isn’t really a bad guy; sure, he is a leech, and someone who is unable to develop his own ingenious idea, so finds it simpler to occupy another’s, but his vision for the brand, his passion for the product, and his seemingly endless ambition to build McDonald’s into something iconic almost enables the spectator to strangely respect his business sentiment. Watching Kroc’s rise to infamy is frustratingly satisfying, whilst seeing the undoing of the gentle – if perhaps single-minded – McDonald’s brothers is equally painful. Dialogue is the king of this picture, and Siegel ensures that the prose lead the way, not Lee Hancock’s sunny, yet traditionalist visuals.
This isn’t the first time we’ve seen McDonald’s on screen, but Lee Hancock’s film is absolutely the kindest representation of the behemoth brand – which at the time of writing has restaurants in over 118 countries, with nearly 37,000 stores worldwide. If The Founder is historically accurate, such exponential growth of the fast food chain would never have come to being had Dick and Mac just continued their happy days of pouring Coca-Cola’s and applying two pickles per patty. They developed something completely inspired, yet lacked the inspiration to capitalise upon it; largely due to Dick’s mentality that mass growth “cheapens” what McDonald’s represents. The film is extremely coy in its characterisation, which is arguably its most impressive feat. So easy is it for spectators and journalists to see Kroc as the villain, but really he is an antihero; a devilishly charming risk-taker, who places the safety and sanctuary of his home and marriage to wife Ethel (Laura Dern) in the firing line as he strives to make McDonald’s a statement of America.
Keaton is quite simply perfect for the role, bringing heft, venom, and wry laughs in spades. The aesthetic craft of the film never enables he, nor any of the rich supporting cast, to delve into a particularly spectacular sequence, but the interplay between characters is satisfying enough to maintain the 115 minute duration. Offerman and Lynch are also great as the hapless, hurting brothers, as is Bloodline‘s Linda Cardellini who stars as Joan Smith – a ravishing married women who falls under Kroc’s spell after acquiring her own McDonald’s restaurant, and slowly engages in an affair; one which would see her become his wife until his death in 1984.
Lee Hancock’s latest isn’t quite as accomplished as his Saving Mr. Banks, but it serves up one of his better portions. There is nothing particularly surprising, nor unique about this retelling of Kroc’s adventure, but the journey is always compelling, and controlled. Next time you pull up for your Double Cheeseburger, we suspect a flash of Keaton’s wide-eyed, crooked-smiled franchiser will flood your first bite.
The Founder opens in UK cinemas from Friday, 17th February.