It wouldn’t be a far stretch to say that McDonald's is arguably the most recognisable brand in the world. Equal parts popular and controversial, the fast food chain is an established part of our culture, so much so that it’s hard to imagine the world without it. With their film ‘The Founder’, director John Lee Hancock and screenwriter Robert D. Siegel focus in on its origins - specifically Ray Kroc, the man credited with having "founded" the restaurant. However, as with all great success stories, the success is far more complex than its subject would have you believe.
Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton) is an unsuccessful entrepreneur and salesman in the 1950s when he stumbles upon a revolutionary burger restaurant run in California by McDonald brothers Dick (Nick Offerman) and Mac (John Carroll Lynch), delivering great food to its customers within seconds. Seeing the potential in the concept, he encourages the brothers to place him in charge of franchising McDonald's across the country, but as the cultural and financial potential of the restaurant explodes, so does Ray’s ego and megalomania, and his thirst to succeed at all costs puts him directly in conflict with Dick and Mac for power over the company.
There’s so much rich potential in the idea behind ‘The Founder’, especially in the wake of David Fincher’s similarly-themed masterpiece ‘The Social Network’. The mechanisms behind the story are equal parts fascinating and horrifying, its protagonist charming and ghastly, and it also offers the chance to see a cultural icon develop, for better or worse. Siegel certainly sees the potential in his screenplay, which balances the light and darkness deftly, especially when it comes to the direct conflicts between Ray and the McDonald brothers. Ray is an almost Shakespearean villain, totally reprehensible yet strangely charismatic, so much so that you see why he is able to woo those around him. Riding on the wave of his rediscovery, Keaton is absolutely magnetic as Ray, barely controlling the madness growing in his eyes as the man transitions from opportunistic to Machiavellian. There’s great material in this screenplay, and Keaton relishes it, making Ray all the more fascinating.
The pieces are all in place for a great film with the material, screenplay and cast of ‘The Founder’, but what comes as an enormous shock is how woefully misdirected it is. Hancock achieved great success with heartfelt and imaginative dramas like ‘The Blind Side’ (2009) and ‘Saving Mr Banks’ (2013), but rather than connecting with the dark, twisted heart of ‘The Founder’, he approaches this film with the same sense of warmth and wholesomeness. Watching this reprehensible man ruin lives and steal livelihoods, you get the uncomfortable impression that the film is actually on his side, offering neither judgement nor objective detachment. Ray not only steals the McDonald brothers’ idea, but destroys both his own and others' marriages in the process, and the film doesn’t seem too concerned about that. This exemplifies the one real problem with Siegel’s screenplay: its lack of and unsatisfactory depiction of women. Hancock’s direction makes this even more problematic, which seems bizarre considering his two previous films. To be honest, I was a tad shocked when I got to the end of this film, having not seen one in a long time where the director has so severely missed the tone of the material they were working with. Everything was there in the screenplay and the cast, but rather than depicting the troubled and controversial creation of an American icon and the man who was responsible for its cultural eruption, it seems far more concerned with celebrating it at the cost of drama, tension, pathos or social commentary.
Watching this reprehensible man ruin lives and steal livelihoods, you get the uncomfortable impression that the film is actually on his side, offering neither judgement nor objective detachment.
More’s the pity with the cast he’s assembled, all of whom do great work. Offerman and Lynch are the emotional heart of the film, and watching the brothers’ dream fall apart is truly heartbreaking, a wonderful contrast to the richly maniacal performance from Keaton. Supporting players Patrick Wilson and B.J. Novak are also great, but two of the biggest talents of the film unfortunately suffer from the film’s lack of strong female characters. Linda Cardellini isn’t on our screens enough as it is, so the cardboard cutout she’s asked to play here as a female business partner of Ray’s is really disappointing. Worst of all, as Ray’s wife Ethel, Laura Dern looks bored and like she doesn’t know why she’s there, and any film that casts Laura Dern and then does such a thing to her should be punished severely.
‘The Founder’ is a film with so much potential, an opportunity to provide a character study, a history of a major cultural icon and commentary on the thirst for power and profit at all cost. Unfortunately, what we get is a film that thinks it’s a heartfelt look at the American Dream of a great entrepreneur. Yes, what Ray Krock achieves with McDonald's is remarkable, but what we see in ‘The Founder’ is the cost of that and the morally reprehensible things he did to achieve it, things the film doesn’t seem too interested in judging him for. This film needed more bite, more bile and a sharper edge. What we got instead was something disposable and forgettable.