Odds are, you’re going to walk out of The Founder within spitting distance of a McDonald’s. A peek inside the Sausage McMuffin factory and the giant’s earliest days, The Founder might just tell you more than you wanted to know about your favourite soft serves and hash browns.
On a startling upward trajectory since his phenomenal turn in Birdman, Michael Keaton (thankfully speaking direct to camera only on the odd occasion) plays milkshake-maker salesman Ray Kroc, who chances upon a local fast-food fixture developed by brothers Dick and Mac McDonald (Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch respectively in two markedly good performances). Based on the true story of one of the world’s most recognisable brands, Kroc convinces the brothers to let him franchise the model, soon coming into conflict with Dick and Mac over their contract and strict management and production stipulations.
A novelty, and a pleasing one no less to see an original take on something so pervasive in popular culture, until now conspicuously absent from Hollywood’s slate, the appeal is muted somewhat by Director John Lee Hancock’s (The Blind Side, Saving Mr. Banks) heavy-handed depiction of Kroc’s life-changing discovery, with ‘the founder’ shown marveling for lengths at McDonald’s revolutionary efficiency, or slowly taking a bite into a burger while nonchalantly watching some nuclear family pick at fries. At one point, Hancock pauses the action to make a huge deal of Kroc meeting Fred L. Turner in one of the restaurants, a grill operator who would later become CEO of McDonald’s and famously expand the reach of the organisation globally.
There are short, largely thankless roles for talented actresses Laura Dern and Linda Cardellini, with the hugely charismatic Keaton taking centre stage as Kroc transforms from a struggling door-to-door salesman into the champion of a franchise now serving 68 million customers every day. The appeal of The Founder is that Kroc is the film’s hero, and it’s villain, or both, depending on your outlook. Keaton’s portrayal of the man will either evoke abject sympathy for his struggles and the continued stifling of his ambitions or revulsion for his relentless pursuit of fame and fortune at any cost.
Hancock`s early treatment of Kroc, when his high-flying ambitions and promises of snowballing success are largely met with gentle-mocking, prove among the most endearing sequences in the film. Kroc`s seemingly absurd comparison of the fledgling company to the most fundamental of American icons is alternately stirring and chilling for modern audiences in a way it could only have been for uncannily prescient observers so many decades ago.
Painting a vibrant picture of a man you can and likely will simultaneously admire and despise, it is only in The Founder’s later chapters that Kroc’s depiction becomes more clear-cut, with sequences throughout both decrying and celebrating the runaway success’ legacy.
The film’s early and oft-evident moral ambivalence ultimately its strongest asset, alongside its lead, The Founder’s cleverly chosen title and final events, capable of registering any number of reactions, has a lot to recommend it.
The Founder is in cinemas on November 24