The Founder, 2016.
Directed by John Lee Hancock.
Starring Michael Keaton, Nick Offerman, John Carroll Lynch, Laura Dern, Linda Cardellini and Patrick Wilson.
Salesman Ray Kroc discovers a burger restaurant in California that has revolutionised serving fast food and decides it has the potential to be something much bigger. The biggest fast food chain in the world.
On the face of it, John Lee Hancock’s The Founder had awards bait written all over it. Backed by The Weinstein Company, it was released at the right time to be considered, it had John Lee Hancock (Saving Mr Banks, The Blind Side) at the helm and, perhaps best of all, Michael Keaton at the top of the cast list. All the ingredients were there – apart, of course, from the regulation two slices of pickle, equal squirts of ketchup and mustard and a standard size McDonald’s burger.
So what happened? Reports of The Weinstein Company being sued over the film’s release date in the States can’t have helped. The company’s other awards contender, Lion, has a wider appeal and has landed six Oscar nominations, plus a couple of BAFTAs this week. And there’s always the possibility that the timing isn’t right for a story about a ruthless businessman who puts his own ambitions for money and power ahead of anything, and anybody, else.
The worldwide phenomenon that is McDonald’s feeds 1% of the world every day. We know that because the film tells us. But here we’re going back to the start, the mid-50s when milkshake machine salesman Ray Kroc (Keaton) is so intrigued by an unusually large order of his product that he travels to California to find out more about his customer. He discovers a hamburger restaurant, run by the McDonald brothers, which has turned serving fast food on its head. It’s inventive, mechanized, still has the personal touch and, most important of all, it’s fast, cheap and relentlessly consistent. Consistently good. He can’t resist the opportunity and it’s the start of a tricky business partnership with the brothers that results in McDonald’s franchises springing up all over the USA at a phenomenal rate under Kroc’s leadership. The brothers, however, suffer a different fate.
The darker side, then, of American big business, but the film could have gone in one of several directions: more emphasis on the humour, or even taking a satirical turn, with big business pilloried for stifling smaller operations. Sadly, it does neither, wobbling in between the two with the occasional laugh or note of irony. It’s a less than favourable portrait of Kroc although, initially, he does grab a certain amount of sympathy as the down-on-his-luck salesman with an unhappy marriage. It’s not long before his true nature emerges: energetic, driven and with a sharp eye for a good business proposition. But his real talent is for stealing other people’s creations – a business magpie, if you like. The restaurants, the words of a motivational speaker, a business partner’s wife – he takes them all, uses them and always claims them as his own.
Keaton’s performance is exactly as you would expect – committed, fizzing with energy and charismatic – but despite his efforts, there’s an inherent problem with the character. He’s just not as interesting as the McDonald brothers themselves. Mac (John Carroll Lynch) is big and cuddly, the smiling public face of the business, but a worrier underneath. The original Big Mac. Brother Dick (Nick Offerman) is the brains behind the business, not short on imagination but always reined in by his own meticulous eye for detail. He constantly looks for ways to improve the restaurant, but that doesn’t mean his priority is always profit. He also came up with the Golden Arches idea – not that Kroc would ever have admitted it. The two actors are superb together, coming close to stealing the entire film from under Keaton’s nose, and the sequences showing how they developed their fast food concept are some of the most absorbing in the film. When they’re not around, especially in the second half, we wish they were.
There’s a strong sense of an opportunity missed with The Founder, not just when it comes to this month’s awards but also in terms of a stronger, harder hitting film. A more decisive approach would have given us something meatier – a little of Kroc’s own decision making skills might not have amiss. As it is, what we get comes close to being as bland as a burger.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★