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The restaurant business is no easy business, and in 1954, supplying them with milkshake makers, especially when most don’t have the demand, is equally as hard. So learns Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton), hawking his wares out of the truck of his car, slowly becoming despondent over the state of the American diner. That is until he makes his way to San Bernardino, California where a small family place called McDonald’s is requesting a big order and has enthusiastic customers lining up for its for inexpensive food.
At the restaurant, Ray meets Mac (John Carroll Lynch) and Dick McDonald (Nick Offerman), brothers who have completely reinvented the concept, creating a kind of assembly line mentality that turned a thirty-minute wait time for drive-in burger joints into an astonishing 30 seconds. Ray is shocked at the efficiency and quality and he wants in, so he makes a deal with the brothers to franchise, despite their hesitations. The old-school boys are concerned about standards and that their name will be tarnished, and they have right to feel so. This sets up a combative relationship that leads Ray to look for a way to go on his own to reach his real vision for the future of their name.
Directed by John Lee Hancock, The Founder is an interesting cross section of a man that is at once the good guy and the bad guy, a character of singular purpose that achieves what many might think impossible while at the same time undercutting the very men who inspired him. It’s a film about the troubling machinations of doing business but its more so about the personalities, a showcase of a man with steel in his blood that the film takes to task, presenting him as a figure of tremendous influence who is also unflinchingly determined to crush those who stand in his way.
Never once grounded by reality, The Founder is like a fairy tale about a man who would be king, taking the details and layering them in a bucolic swath of local hero flavor. Ray is a man frustrated by the process of his job, the complications of the business, his unstable marriage, and the lack of others who can’t seem to see what he sees. The film, written by Robert D. Siegel, does an exceptional job of portraying Ray from his roots, beaten down but undeterred, evolving into a empire-building megalomaniac that somehow, like many of the great characters of the genre, wholly keeps us invested.
That has much to do with Keaton, who is powerfully good, shifting his voice and body, turning himself into a monster that exploits a remarkable operation that is run by men far more honest and filled with integrity, and as such, incapable of expanding. Keaton is a marvel to watch, stripping away much of the mannerisms and acting choices that have come to define him for decades, creating a character of unspeakable voracity. It’s a joy to watch.
So too is the work of Lynch and Offerman, who portray the brothers as men of great dignity and honor wholly run over by the machine that is Ray Kroc. Their story is a tragedy, one of men who spent their lives building something that was their’s alone, trampled by a man with no capacity to accept the word no and a hunger that seems insatiable. Lynch and Offerman are careful not become too pastoral but do come to represent the little man in the larger theme, and so it is them whom we feel most for when the credits role.
All of this riveting to watch, with the first half far more engrossing, especially in highlighting the McDonald’s brothers one vision. The films shifts in the back half to the legal battles, Ray’s failed marriage, and his quiet but determined obsession with Joan (Linda Cardellini), the wife of one the men who buys into the franchise. Things lose a bit of the momentum as streams of dialogue are presented that slow the pace and seem to give Kroc a quick metamorphosis as scenes eventually can’t help but feel contrived.
Still, there’s no watching The Founder and not be taken by its compelling story, especially given the familiarity of the McDonald’s name. While we never truly get a sense that what we see is absolutely authentic, the spirit of the story is firm and in some ways, has us feeling a bit like unknowing participants in a takeover, good or bad, that turned a family burger stand in California to one of the most recognized corporate names in the history of the world.
Movie description: The Founder is a 2017 historical drama about the men behind the creation of the McDonald's fast food chain and its rise to become the largest in the world.
Director(s): John Lee Hancock
Actor(s): Michael Keaton, Nick Offerman, John Carroll Lynch
Genre: Historical Drama