The true story behind the world’s largest fast food chain.
It’s the early 1950s, and entrepreneur Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton) stands in front of a vacant real estate lot just a few blocks from his suburban Illinois home. After a few moments, Ray kneels down and takes a handful of dirt from the lot and begins turning it over inside of his hand. Finally, he looks up at the heavens and pleads, “Please, let this be right,” before throwing the dirt back onto the ground.
This is one of the moments that The Founder, the latest film from director John Lee Hancock (Saving Mr. Banks, The Blind Side), keeps coming back to multiple times throughout its story, since it’s the moment where Kroc finally takes the plunge fully into his final entrepreneurial endeavor – turning two Californian brothers’ restaurant into a nationwide franchise. It just so happens that said restaurant was none other than McDonald’s, which thanks to Kroc’s lofty goals ended up becoming the most successful fast food chain in the world.
It’s also in that moment where The Founder’s biggest problems are most obvious because it’s very clear that Hancock and Co. want you to be rooting for Ray’s success when he picks up that handful of dirt, and it’s not necessarily hard to see why either. After all, Ray’s literally bet everything he has on the success of that Illinois McDonald’s, including putting his own home up for collateral in order to get a large enough loan from the bank to pay for it. Having spent an entire lifetime being rejected by those he’s asked to believe in him, why wouldn’t you want him to succeed?
The problem is that the rest of The Founder, for some reason or another, still maintains that blind love for Ray Kroc, even when he proceeds to do some truly horrible, reprehensible things. These include lying, cheating, and stealing the entire McDonald’s idea and corporation away from the two brothers who came up with it in the first place, divorcing and leaving his faithful wife, Ethel (Laura Dern), who’s put up with his antics throughout their entire marriage, and even stealing another man’s wife (Linda Cardellini).
Now, in its simplest form, The Founder is both an underdog success story and the story of a ruthless man screwing over everyone around him along the way. One is a heartwarming tale similar to the films Hancock has made before, while the other feels like a Martin Scorsese film in the making, and unfortunately, The Founder has a hard time balancing those two very different tones. But thanks to the performances of its actors, you may be willing to forgive it for some of its flaws.
Indeed, Michael Keaton continues to prove himself as one of the most charismatic and talented actors of his generation. He manages to perfectly sell both Ray’s optimistic beliefs and snakelike business decisions with a seemingly unending level of exuberance and persistence that not many other actors would be able to pull off. Like any great villain, he sees himself as the hero of his own story – one who believes that the rewards for his efforts have been long overdue.
Nick Offerman also gives a standout performance in the film as Dick McDonald, who, along with his brother, is responsible for the speed-oriented operations that made McDonald’s so revolutionary when it first arrived on the scene back in San Bernardino in the ’50s. Unwaveringly traditional and morally resolute, Dick falls fairly in line with Offerman’s other iconic characters, but the actor shows once again that he’s capable of a lot more versatility onscreen when given the chance. Some of the best scenes in The Founder take place over the phone as Dick and Ray’s equally stubborn personalities continue to clash with each other, and it’s to the credit of both actors that the scenes don’t begin to feel repetitive or clunky throughout.
Just a couple of months ago, The Founder had initially seemed like it was going to be a big end-of-the-year awards contender before The Weinstein Company suddenly moved it to a January release date. At the time, that delay was shocking and worrying, but it makes perfect sense now having seen the film. It’s not nearly as bad as most of the garbage that’s released in January, but it’s also not nearly as focused or memorable enough to have stood out or gotten any attention in the packed awards season that 2016 ended up offering.
The Founder shines most when it’s focused less on Ray Kroc’s betrayal and more on the actual reasons McDonald’s was so successful in the first place. No, it’s not just because of its apparently “inviting” brand name, like Ray tells Dick during one of the film’s key moments, and which like most of the character’s other mottos feels just as forgettable and empty as the powdered milkshakes he ends up selling at one point in the film.
It’s one of the truest facts of life that the meaning of a place or thing doesn’t actually come from what it is, but from what we personally bring to it. You can assign meaning anywhere if you truly believe in it. I’ve even often said that going to the movies is like my own version of going to Church, and throughout my whole life I’ve never felt more at home anywhere than in the middle of a darkened movie theater. On a similar note then, when Ray says he believes McDonald’s could become just as integral to society as the post offices or churches that populate every small town and city, he’s saying it because he actually believes it.
So with little money to his name and a seemingly never-ending track record of bad luck, Ray Kroc built his path to financial redemption from the dirt of a vacant lot sitting smack dab in the middle of suburban America. As it turns out, cathedrals can be built anywhere and out of anything – even a couple of golden arches. One can only wish then that The Founder had spent more time exploring that very belief rather than the tedious business operations, melodrama, and phone calls we’ve seen far too many times before in remarkably similar stories.