The Founder is Simplistic Tasteless Gristle
If The Wolf of Wall Street is the burger in the picture, this McDonald’s biopic is the burger in the bag.
The Founder is an old man’s The Wolf of Wall Street, a biopic of cruelty with its teeth dulled by fast food and its fierceness tempered by an overfull belly. Michael Keaton stars as Ray Kroc in John Lee Hancock’s lethargic training-video-meets-corporate-documentary about the origin of McDonald’s. The film doesn’t have the balls or the skill to indict its protagonist or its institution, nor the energy to make either interesting.
Kroc effectively stole the world’s biggest food phenomenon from two enterprising rubes, Dick and Mac McDonald (Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch, who’re asked for nothing but their bumbling Midwestern thickness), in a coup as dramatic as something like The Social Network. The brothers focus on systematic seclusion, restaurant perfection in isolation, while Kroc’s appetite is much larger.
Where The Social Network focused on the personal toll of the bloodthirsty ambition bubbling up from suppressed genius and wounded masculinity, The Founder presents Kroc as a mediocre slimeball. Keaton appears to us first in a baggy beige suit, short-sleeved windowpane shirt, and loosened ugly tie staring at the camera. He stretches his conniving face enthusiastically, like Jim Carrey playing Mephistopheles. He’s a salesman, as desperate to sell milkshake mixers as the film is to sell him.
Kroc is an Ayn Rand hero, driving up to the first McDonald’s in San Bernardino with the sublime awe of a man seeing his deity. The audience is meant to recognize the sign, the name, with the same fanaticism of Kroc’s El Dorado. We linger on the word as its characters repeat it aloud like mediocre historical fiction does with facts it thinks its audience already knows.
The smiling inhuman face of industrialization peers from an innovative walk-up window, which is Hancock’s first noticeable decision to side with Kroc. His human skepticism is set against the smiling impossible promises of robotic efficiency. The employees are perhaps too perfect to be thought of as people. Kroc’s genius, we imply, is using this inhuman apparatus to its fullest capitalist potential.
The film follows in his sunny, smilingly fascist footsteps. Its most comfortable and cinematic scene is a midday tennis court ballet of fast food efficiency. Kroc’s new teen employees dance around each other learning choreography reminiscent of Frank and Lillian Gilbreth’s light experiments that used body lights and long exposure photography to track and mechanize the movements of laborers. Twirling on a training blueprint marking the locations of condiments, fries, and burgers, they swing near each other, never quite touching – their proximity feels like something a factory would push on its workers as a pleasant side effect in its propaganda.
Hancock visually associates intimacy with business – is this how we’re meant to know Republicans when we see them? Brothers, friends, wives, and lovers are judged by their corporate savvy rather than love or sex.
We dither away on the stoic sadness of Kroc’s wife Ethel (Laura Dern, damned in a terrible nagging wife role), whose main sin seems to be her disinclination to drop her life to work at a restaurant, yet never see Kroc cheating on her as anything but an opportunity for an upgrade. Hancock isn’t here to throw blame around, as the rest of the film makes readily apparent. Kroc’s third-wife-to-be, Joan (Linda Cardellini), is a young bombshell that happens to share the joint appeals of manufactured entrepreneurial talent (falsely credited with solving a freezer expense problem) and unavailability. While Keaton flexes his lascivious muscles to make a cuckold of poor Patrick Wilson, the film declines to mention Kroc’s second wife between the two in the film. Its interest in his personal life, it seems, is purely business.
The film’s obviousness isn’t just in Carter Burwell’s smug, lazy score or its uninventive, brightly lit shots, but its entire direction. The script covers as much ground as Kroc does once he discovers that real estate is the real moneymaker, but we spend so much of the film listening to unfiltered ideology in a medium and a time that calls for commentary. Flags, crosses, and golden arches may signify America, but the film has no interest in connecting the dots between these commonalities and what McDonald’s deems the “decent people” to which it aims to cater.
Even when Kroc seethes at the teens smoking, laughing, and loitering around a poorly franchised restaurant, the conflict is resolved with a populist reassignment of ownership duties from Kroc’s rich country club friends to lower-middle class Americans raised on the same bootstrap-pulling rhetoric that’s meant to warm our hearts. Kroc intends McDonald’s to be the new bastion of the American Protestant work ethic. The “idle rich” (as Kroc calls them) have no place there. This is the new farm of the pilgrim, the tree of freedom watered not with the blood of patriots but clogged with unendingly ambitious elbow grease.
If Hancock had any interest in making Kroc a truly despicable character, he had plenty of history (most of it in Kroc’s colorful autobiography) to draw upon. The man swindled the biggest restaurant idea in the world away from its namesake (seen here in a dull, literally phoned-in plot). Instead, The Founder embraces tired, easy business school ethos.
When Kroc “makes it” for the first time, he strides out of a taxi to a hoard of cheering Minnesotans. A nice suit with a pocket square, a steak dinner, literally surrounded by applause and blonde cheerleaders – it’s the most boring dream come true you could ask for. Hancock doesn’t make Kroc a person, but an insultingly assumed universality.