‘The Founder’ is a good film very much worth watching. Unfortunately, it’s all too clear that the movie derives from a great script that wasn’t quite given the directorial touch it deserved.
The screenplay comes from former ‘Onion’ writer Robert Siegel, who previously delivered two fascinating and darkly comedic character studies in ‘The Wrestler’ and ‘Big Fan’, both of which went out of their way to present complicated protagonists who challenged viewers’ empathy. ‘The Founder’ is a study of McDonald’s CEO Ray Kroc, clearly a complex character who deserves similar treatment for the impact he had on the business practices and diet of America. Unfortunately, directing duties fell into the hands of John Lee Hancock, whose previous movies including ‘Saving Mr. Banks’ and ‘The Blind Side’ are syrupy affairs devoid of the dark corners and ironies that Siegel explores. Hancock’s film attempts to present this subversion of a Great Man bio-pic sincerely as the real thing, diluting the story’s impact without entirely spoiling it.
Michael Keaton continues his well-deserved career comeback by playing Kroc. He kicks off the film as a traveling salesman flogging a newfangled milkshake mixer after years of similar failed ventures. His travels lead him to a popular West Coast burger joint known as McDonald’s, run by two brothers (Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch) with incredible speed, efficiency and a keen business sense. Kroc wants to turn the restaurant into a franchise, which the McBros had tried before without success. He’s determined to pull it off and (spoiler alert) he does. He turns McDonald’s into the fastest growing business in America, then starts cutting corners to advance profits. The brothers aren’t thrilled, but Kroc eventually believes he doesn’t need their help or approval. He talks about McDonald’s as if he’s the founder and creator. Given what that massive international corporation masquerading as a restaurant has grown into today, he’s right. It’s just an ugly truth, which the film teases out through comedy that is often implied through the writing rather than by how Hancock chooses to play out the scenes.
‘The Founder’ is a story filled with deliberate ironies that rarely make it to the surface. Siegel’s script toys with the bio-pic formula, presenting Kroc as a hero in accordance with genre convention and that American Dream thing, but not in a manner by which anyone is actually considered a good person. Kroc might be a business genius, but he’s also a deluded megalomaniac. Those two traits made him the man he was and McDonald’s the business it has become. It’s gross, but admirable (you know, like McDonald’s).
Keaton dives in at full force, rattling off dialogue like the motor-mouthed comedic genius that he always was and layering in levels of damaged humanity like the great actor he’s become. Keaton gets the ironies of the story and the humor of the script, nailing them in the performance in ways the film around him often doesn’t. Offerman and Lynch are equally good, tossing away amusing plot points (such as one of the McDonald’s creators’ early onset diabetes) with the deadpan glee they deserve. Huge portions of ‘The Founder’ play exclusively between the three actors, and when that happens the film lives up to its potential.
Elsewhere, things feel a bit false. Hancock plays the story like the glossy bio-pic it isn’t. On a certain level, hiring him was an amusing creative choice. Siegel deliberately wrote the film to start off feeling like a cornball American Dream fantasy about one of the most successful U.S. business ventures. (Let’s be honest, fast food was one of America’s biggest cultural contributions to the 20th Century). Getting a filmmaker who specializes in such sincere schmaltz (and who can work well with actors) to shoot it like he usually would and let the subversive nature of the script deconstruct the genre from within was a clever experiment. Sadly, it just doesn’t quite work. Hancock doesn’t really know how to handle the dark third act or the way his protagonist becomes an antagonist. The film is always bright and poppy when it should slowly segue into something harsher and more real. The filmmaker also lets all the supporting characters slip away into the background, wasting performers like Laura Dern and Linda Cardellini when they should be stealing scenes.
Still, the good news is that the biggest failings of ‘The Founder’ are entirely limited to scenes that feel like they should play better, rather than movie not working. The film remains an intriguing twist on the overplayed bio genre, delivered through a character and company that deserve a kick to the nuts. A completely sincere, sentimental and entirely dishonest Ray Kroc/McDonald’s Oscar bait movie easily could have been made in place of ‘The Founder’, and it would have been abysmal. This is the McDonald’s bio-pic that deserves to exist, even if it’s been executed in a manner that doesn’t quite hit its full potential.
That’s a shame. At the center of it all, Michael Keaton gives the performance that the script deserves. Unfortunately, he won’t be recognized for it once gold statues are handed out, because the flawed film has already gotten lost in 2016’s awards bait cesspool.
At least it’s still a pretty good movie. There aren’t enough of those.