Attempting to do for McDonald’s what The Social Network did for Facebook, Saving Mr. Banks director, John Lee Hancock returns to the world of the soft-focus biography to tell the tale of Ray Kroc. A struggling salesman who managed to turn a parking lot restaurant run by the McDonalds brothers, into the fast-food behemoth we see today.
The year is 1954, and Kroc (Michael Keaton) is hawking his kitchen machinery around the country, with diminishing returns and doors regularly closed in his face. That is until he receives an order from Dick and Mac McDonald (Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch), whose hamburger restaurant is in need of Ray’s services, to meet demand for their unique conveyor belt style, grab and go service.
Ever the entrepreneur, Ray sees this as an opportunity, first to jump on board with the brothers, turning McDonald’s into a franchise business, and then to turn against them when profit margins and corporate ownership becomes an issue. You’ll have no idea what people went through just to get you a banana milkshake in under a minute.
To return to The Social Network comparisons, if that film was a filling, satisfying, education in the Shakespearean dynamics behind one of the world’s leading global brands, then this is a fluffy, light, hash brown, that you might have left in the bottom of the bag had it not been for the appeal of its acting ensemble.
It’s all just a bit too vanilla, a bit too nice. Even when the backstabbing and adultery looms in the films second half, it’s all dealt with accompanied by a jaunty tinkling piano soundtrack. We’re not sure whether we’re meant to condemn Ray, or root for him. He comes out of most situations smelling of roses or Linda Cardellini’s perfume, and there’s no real ramifications for his actions. His wife, played by the wonderful Laura Dern, is simply cast asunder from events, without any chance to castigate him for his affair.
The same criticism can be aimed at the McDonald’s brother’s arc. Ultimately you feel for them, but the script doesn’t judge Ray for his actions. He isn’t challenged on the morally dubious nature of the choices he makes. There’s just no edge to proceedings, just a light hearted tone, which worked wonderfully on Saving Mr Banks and The Blind Side, but here it just dulls what could have been fascinating personal and litigious plot developments for the characters.
The Founder’s equivalent of a bonus Happy Meal toy can be found in the ensemble, all fronted by a terrific toothy performance from Michael Keaton. He works better as the enthusiastic showman than the duplicitous character he evolves into, but the intrigue in this entire story comes from his actions, so it helps that Keaton is the one slipping into Kroc’s skin. Nick Offerman’s staple gruffness works perfectly in tandem with Lynch’s gentle giant vulnerability. The two actors are the real heart of the movie, they’re where our empathy lies throughout.
Image: The Weinstein Company
The question of whether you actually wanted to know the origin story behind the golden arches isn’t really justified in The Founder. It’s more of a curiosity than a must-see. Call us when they green-light an in-depth examination into Los Pollos Hermanos from Breaking Bad, or WcDonalds from Coming to America. Until then, we’re off to Burger King.