Tell me if you’ve heard the one about the traveling salesman who started McDonald’s. You know, the multi-billion dollar fast food corporation that currently serves approximately 68 million customers a day in 119 countries across the world through approximately 36,615 outlets. Well, that genius was Ray Kroc, a real son of a gun who lived a whole life as a lousy door-to-door salesman until he stumbled upon and subsequently
stole bought someone else’s American dream. That “someone” were, in fact, two brothers named Richard and Maurice McDonald, whose trendy hamburger stand in San Bernardino, California won Kroc over with its signature “Speedee Service System”, which ostensibly put the “fast” in fast food. Of course, that’s only the 30 second pitch; the real story of McDonald’s goes much, much deeper than strictly food, folks, and fun.
That’s ultimately the conceit of John Lee Hancock’s The Founder. Starring the inimitable Michael Keaton as the incorrigible Kroc, the film is both a visualized Wikipedia entry and a loose commentary on corporate America and how the mommas and poppas are always screwed six ways till Sunday. It’s a sad story and one that should boil the blood of anyone who ever ate a Big Mac or a Happy Meal in their lives — which, according to the text-based epilogue at the end of this film, is about 1% of the world’s population on any given day — but it’s also overcooked. Robert D. Siegel, whose stellar resume speaks for itself (see: 2008’s The Wrestler, 2009’s Big Fan, and 2013’s Turbo) delivers a meat-and-potatoes screenplay that offers very little nuance and chows down on banner statements that moves the story along at a pace akin to an average McDonald’s counter.
Maybe that’s the point? If so, it doesn’t do the film any favors. The whole thing’s as serviceable as the source material, a bag of greasy storytelling with high caloric dialogue and preservatives for characters. “There’s a wolf in the henhouse–we let him in,” Nick Offerman’s “Dick” McDonald tells his brother “Mac” (John Carroll Lynch) when he puts the pieces together. “Good things come to those who wait,” Linda Cardellini’s Joan Smith says to Kroc while she coyly stirs up an Insta-Mix milkshake of pent-up sexual frustration. “If my competitor was drowning, I’d walk over and put a hose in his mouth,” Keaton seethes as Kroc when he’s gone Full Villain. There’s just no subtlety to any of the proceedings and while there’s an argument to made in how the film’s fairly transparent about these intentions, none of it rises above being anything more than an average historical recap.
Though, very few Weinstein productions go by without being super-sized with stars, and The Founder is no exception. Sadly, most of the A-list talent appears starved for something more nutritional than this boilerplate drama. Laura Dern pouts around as Kroc’s underwritten house wife Ethel Fleming, Patrick Wilson stares into off-screen headlights as Rollie Smith, and Cardellini does god knows what as Smith. The lone exception is BJ Novak, who squeaks by with a memorable cameo as Harry J. Sonneborn, the former VP of finances at Tastee Freeze who would go on to serve as president of McDonald’s after saving it from financial hell. That leaves Keaton and on-screen brothers Offerman and Lynch, three divine veteran actors that could collectively write a guidebook on how to make memorable characters out of water-logged cardboard.
Together, they do what they can to give The Founder a greater taste. Keaton, coming off the heels of both 2014’s Birdman and 2015’s Spotlight, ably steals the screen as the freewheelin’ Kroc, chewing and spitting out lines as he storms from office to office with pasteurized American sleaze. But he never really has a memorable Keaton Moment in all of his face time, which, to be fair, has more to do with Hancock’s unimaginative direction and Siegel’s vanilla screenplay than, say, his own performance. He comes achingly close, specifically in the final moments when Hancock tries to do Scorsese’s ending to The Aviator, but it’s sidelined by an incredibly lame reveal. As for Offerman and Lynch, the two thrive with the kind of curious chemistry that might fuel a better subplot in a Coen Brothers film. Someone get these two together again, please.
Look, there’s nothing particularly awful about The Founder. It’s a safe, digestible story that works like a breezy read in a crumpled issue of People’s Digest. Better yet, it shows how Ray Kroc was even more of an asshole than Mark Zuckerbro. The real Hamburgler in all of this is the waste of talent, from its proven screenwriter to its enviable cast of stars who, mind you, have all been on a roll. (Don’t believe me? Look up each cast member and see how they’ve spent their last two years. Ridiculous.) What’s more, it’s another tired example of how the biopic has become such a goddamn slog to endure every goddamn Oscar season. And make no mistake, this was grilled, wrapped, and bagged for the Academy long before Siegel had Keaton saying: “Contracts are like hearts — they’re made to be broken.” Needless to say, Oscar isn’t lovin’ it, but hey, you might.
After all, there’s something for everyone to love at McDonald’s.