The Founder

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Full disclosure: I worked for Ray Kroc. Well, sort of. For three years in high school, I worked at a McDonald’s in San Diego. That means I was looking forward to this movie more than most people will be.

Michael Keaton went from Birdman to burger man, to play the weaselly, traveling salesman. He looks enough like Kroc, although this performance wasn’t as good as he was playing a real life person in last year’s Spotlight. He does bring the sleaziness up a few notches as the story progresses, but a lesser known actor might’ve been better for the part (although it would’ve made this a hard picture to sell).

Kroc’s long-suffering wife is played nicely by Laura Dern, although she isn’t given much to do.

The movie starts with Kroc selling milkshake mixers, and not having much luck. We learn from the comments of his friends, he’s been involved in get-rich-quick schemes before. We learn from the flask on his hip, he probably has a bit of a drinking problem. Yet for some reason, the movie never really delves into these things. It’s odd, because obviously the McDonald’s corporation isn’t involved in the making of this movie, yet the filmmaker seemed afraid to show all the warts. A bit more edginess was needed for this to be a more compelling biopic. It’s obvious the filmmakers aren’t fond of Kroc. Yet they’re telling the story from his POV. Why not show it from the McDonald brothers, who are rather interesting as they’re portrayed here (by Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch).

When Kroc decides to drive to San Bernardino to see why a restaurant actually wants to buy so many of his milkshake machines, he’s blown away by how cheap it is to buy lunch ($.55 for a hamburger, fries, and soda). He’s also surprised at how he gets his order within a minute of placing it. He’s been seeing such shoddy service from all the other burger joints he’s been to.

The McDonald brothers give Kroc a tour of their facility, and in some expository dialogue that isn’t the most interesting, show how their speedy service system was created. Kroc quickly convinces them they need to expand. They’ve tried to before without any luck. But Kroc badgers them, and they relent. Obviously, we all know they were successful this time, but it’s rather interesting to see just how it all transpired. Especially when Harry Sonneborn (B.J. Novac from The Office) shows up with some ideas. At the same time, it’s not as biting a satirical film as it should be. Remember how boring we thought a movie about how Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg was going to be? Then we were all blown away with how entertained we were by The Social Network. Perhaps this was just something director John Lee Hancock wasn’t equipped to tackle properly. He let me down with Saving Mr. Banks (Tom Hanks, Emma Thompson), which should’ve been a lot more interesting dealing with how Walt Disney wouldn’t take no for an answer. This film has the same problem.

Yet when Hancock did a biopic on Michael Oher (The Blind Side), it worked. It helps that seeing somebody tackle football players is more exciting than tackling how to sell burgers quickly.

I was also disappointed to learn that this film was written by Robert D. Siegel, who wrote two of the best character study/sports films ever — The Wrestler and Big Fan (in which Patton Oswalt should’ve gotten an Oscar nomination like Mickey Rourke did ). In this, he comes up short.

One of the problems this movie has is that it’s not sure how to show its protagonist. Are we supposed to root for his entrepreneurial spirit? Are we supposed to loathe him? After all, he does a number of despicable things to his wife (mortgaging the house without telling her, neglecting her, and divorcing her when he becomes successful). He does horrible things to his business partners and future investors (even stealing one guy’s wife). It’s also weird that when he does win Joan, we see a few crucial things she has in the involvement of Mickey D’s, and then she sort of disappears. There’s also no mention of the wife he had after Ethel and before Joan. The movie implies Ray left Ethel for Joan. In fact, there were lots of details left out that would’ve been more interesting than chalk on a tennis court for expository dialogue.

There are some scenes that have bite. In one, Kroc is on the phone screaming with Dick McDonald, telling him, “It’s dog eat dog….in the business world. If my competitor was drowning, I’d go over and put a hose right into his mouth.”

The movie needed more of those “greed is good” type of scenes, instead of repetitive phone conversations.

There are some nice shots by cinematographer John Schwartzman (Saving Mr. Banks, The Amazing Spider-Man, Jurassic World). The film was edited nicely by Robert Frazen (find his movie, one of the best of the year, The Family Fang).

By the end, I felt it was too much of a one-note performance from Keaton. Dern and Offerman were criminally underused, and it just didn’t make for a very compelling biopic.

It’s a shame the guy who invented the Big Mac in 1967, and died last month, didn’t get to see what his founder was like. Living in San Diego, we know a bit more. Ray Kroc went on to buy the Padres (the movie doesn’t cover that), and Joan became an incredibly generous philanthropist.

This gets 2 stars out of 5.