*** (out of 4)
John Lee Hancock’s The Founder is the latest movie to emerge out of Hollywood’s perennial obsession with stories about success.This time around, the guy seeking glory isn’t a callous tech nerd (The Social Network), a dude with lots of money to spare (Arbitrage, The Wolf of Wall Street), or a homeschooled sociopath (Nightcrawler), but Raymond Kroc (Michael Keaton), the salesman who founded McDonald’s. When you walk into the theater, you think you have a good idea of what you’re about to see: Kroc will pull out all the stops to set up McDonald’s, he’ll eventually get super-rich, and along the way he’ll do things that call into question his ends-justify-the-means approach.
You’d be right – to a point. The movie follows this basic arc, but in the person of Kroc, it finds a character unlike most of his peers. Zuckerberg was brilliant; Kroc, as the two original McDonald brothers (Nick Offerman, John Carroll Lynch) learn to their detriment, is much better at appropriating the ideas of others than devising his own. The guy in Arbitrage had enough money to buy everyone off; Kroc can’t even get a loan from the bank because of his checkered financial past. Jordan Belfort had a way with words; Kroc has an awkward sales pitch about “chickens and eggs” that usually meets with slammed doors.
What, then, does this guy have to set him apart? A self-help disc called “The Power of Persistence”…and a knack for bumping into the right people at the right time. Keaton’s slimy take on the “self-made” man will have you believe he got to the top because of resilience alone, but he’s always less able and less in control than he’s willing to admit. If he hadn’t received a tip about two brothers in San Bernardino interested in buying his milk mixers, he never would’ve met the McDonalds; later on in the story, if he hadn’t been sitting next to a financial consultant (B.J. Novak) on a visit to the bank, his company would’ve gone bankrupt. In one telling scene, Kroc throws his hands up in a melodramatic V pose during a ribbon-cutting ceremony, and you see him for what he really is: a frog trying to will the world around him into believing he’s always been a prince. He’s the ultimate representation of just how much a difference good luck can make in economic endeavors, and the things his story tells us about ideals like the “American Dream” are sobering.
Yet Kroc isn’t at all alone in his desire to get rich. Aside from Keaton’s strong performance, the other thing you’ll notice about this movie is just how many people share Kroc’s get-ahead mentality. In other movies in the genre, there’s usually a clear line between the hard-hitting winners and the naïve, play-fair losers. Here, everyone is gunning to win, whether it’s the aforementioned financial guru who pushes his way into Kroc’s enterprise or the rich restaurant owner (Patrick Wilson) who begs Kroc to let him open his own McDonald’s. Even characters who’d typically just be losers or on the sidelines aren’t immune: the blonde dame Kroc falls for (Linda Cardellini) fills their conversations with sales pitches, while the two McDonald brothers, the victims of Kroc’s exploitation, are shown to have been extraordinarily meticulous in their own attempts to cut costs and beat the competition. The cutthroatedness isn’t as intense in some as in others, but it’s everywhere in some shape or form, and Kroc’s unusual good fortune stands out all the more because of it.
Overall, this movie falls short of anything truly groundbreaking. By the time we reach the end, it’s resorted to regurgitating tried-and-true clichés (“life’s not fair,” yada yada). And aside from a few humorous moments in which Kroc calls McDonald’s “the new American church,” we’re never made to confront the unpleasant effects of McDonald’s spread; there’s not a single reference to the pernicious consumerism and health problems Kroc’s “brilliant” idea ended up engendering. Still, this movie provides an unflinchingly riveting look into the fickleness of success. And in its gentle, compassionate portrayal of the two McDonalds, two earnest men who simply came too late to the game, it makes more of an effort to connect with the losers of capitalism than most of its peers. As you watch the two of them unknowingly teeter down the road to bankruptcy, their dream forever destroyed, you can’t help but wish that, for once, life could be just a teeny bit kinder than it actually is.
The Founder (2016)
Starring: Michael Keaton, Nick Offerman, John Carroll Lynch, Laura Dern
Running Time: 115 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13, “for brief strong language.”
Produced by: Don Handfield, Karen Lunder, Jeremy Renner, Aaron Ryder
Written by: Robert D. Siegel
Directed by: John Lee Hancock