McDonald's Movie "The Founder" Goes Soft On Its Greasy Protagonist

Director John Lee Hancock is best known for a plethora of downy nonfiction dramas, from “The Rookie” to “The Blind Side” to, most recently, “Saving Mr. Banks.” On the surface he appears a natural for the story of Ray Kroc, American innovator notorious for growing McDonald’s from small town burger joint into worldwide phenomenon. With Michael Keaton in place to star and a stellar supporting cast behind him, “The Founder” seems like a no-brainer fast food epic with a built-in audience.

Except, screenwriter Robert Siegel (“The Wrestler”) – and the history books, for that matter – are on a different page from Hancock. The real Kroc bordered on entrepreneurial vampire, not so secretly draining the life out of two forthright Californian businessmen – Dick and Mac McDonald – in order to erect his empire. Siegel’s script doesn’t exactly shy away from this, but Hancock’s family film instincts put up a hell of a fight. Thusly, the movie has a devil of a time juggling Ray Kroc, cockeyed dreamer, with Ray Kroc, wolf in a paper hat. “The Founder” turns out as watchable as it is peculiar – gummy instead of sharp, soft instead of rugged. In other words, a John Lee Hancock film.

1954. A 51-year-old Ray Kroc (Keaton) is in St. Louis, Missouri, hours from his Chicagoland home, peddling milkshake mixers to drive-in restaurant owners. While most men reduced to a dreary life of traveling sales might flip their charisma off like a switch the second a pitch ends, Ray Kroc is not most men. He spends his downtime in dingy motel rooms studying motivational records and making them his own, determined to be determined, if not become America’s next big success story. When he hears of a San Bernardino burger place ordering six – six! – milkshake mixers, he’s convinced there’s either been a mistake, or that he’s found victual Valhalla.

A Route 66 road trip proves the latter. Brothers Dick (Nick Offerman) and Mac (John Carroll Lynch) McDonald have not only solved the problems inherent in drive-ins (slowness and inaccuracy) with their patented “Speedee Service System,” they’ve become an enormous cult culinary hit across a handful of western United States locations. Kroc beats their hesitance to expand out of them – they’d attempted franchising already to mixed results – convincing the brothers that uniformity is the key. Maintain the same minimalist menu, uniforms, service, and architecture across all locations and nothing would be able to mute the siren call of the buzzing golden arches.

Kroc’s modest station in life understandably brings out the shark in him; like any good capitalist he wants more than a plain house and a plain wife (Ethel Kroc is played thanklessly by the always terrific Laura Dern). As he oversees construction on McDonald’s locations in Chicagoland and beyond, the knives begin to come out. Kroc begins to embrace his role as fast food antihero, mentally and financially turning the screws to the McDonalds. But the movie around him doesn’t change. It remains a wide-eyed biopic, all too reverent of its protagonist, refusing to get down in the mud with him. Michael Keaton puts on his best face but can’t help but get a little lost in the wishy-washiness.

Ultimately, Kroc goes full slimeball, stealing the wife (Linda Cardellini) of a franchisee (Patrick Wilson) and finally, fully screwing the McDonalds brothers. Yet, Hancock’s film never really turns on its lead, putting the finishing brushstrokes on a weirdly respectful portrait of what it sees as a scrappy American icon. Not even a late-game scene that depicts an instance of actual plagiarism has enough teeth to indict Kroc for what he really was: a resourceful but no-good charlatan.

While John Lee Hancock’s feathery touch was a match for the innately heartwarming “Saving Mr. Banks,” in “The Founder” it betrays him and his capable cast. Despite a surfeit of nice period visual touches, the filmmaker’s soft sensibilities relieve a juicy story of its juice, until all that’s left is a blandly edible burger biopic. In what should have been a search for the line between visionary and vampire, the movie happily pronounces that there is none – or at least that Ray Kroc never noticed one. It’s this cop-out of an acquittal that ironically keeps the picture from the same greatness as its greasy hero.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Okay)

Release Date: December 7, 2016 (Limited)
Studio: The Weinstein Company
Director: John Lee Hancock
Screenwriter: Robert D. Siegel
Starring: Michael Keaton, Nick Offerman, John Carroll Lynch, Laura Dern, Patrick Wilson, Linda Cardellini, B.J. Novak