The Founder (2016)
“It’s not just the system, Dick. It’s the name. That glorious name, McDonald’s. It could be anything you want it to be…it’s limitless, it’s wide open…it sounds like…America” (Ray Kroc).
The title sounds like something on the topic of religion, doesn’t? Well, apparently not in the times we live in. The McDonald brothers’ success was to the 1950s what the social network’s success was to the 2000s. The story of McDonald’s, one of the most recognised food chains in the world, is sure to fascinate and intrigue. Not only “The Founder” is based on a true story, but it has a stellar performance by Michael Keaton (“Batman Returns” (1992), “Birdman” (2014)) in the role of Ray Kroc, who takes the McDonald brothers’ concept of a fast restaurant service and turns it into a global fast food empire. The year is 1954, and Kroc, a milk-shake mixer salesman, meets Richard and Maurice McDonald, two brothers who run a food joint focusing on three specific menu items and on the rapidity of their service. Kroc has never seen anything like this before, and proposes to the brothers a deal.
The film starts strong, uncovering layer after layer the fascinating story of Ray Kroc and the building of McDonald’s empire. It will be enjoyed best by those who have never seen any of the McDonald’s documentaries because the pleasure here is finding out what really made McDonald’s stand out from the crowd. We first see Kroc being frustrated with slow and inefficient service at a number of food joints across the US, and then being amazed at the service at McDonald’s. The McDonald brothers’ concept is both painfully simple and undeniably revolutionary at the same time: the service is speedy, super-quick: without cutlery, napkins or any etiquette, a mile-long queue is dispensed with within minutes and the delivery is a hot, yummy burger to a customer who is only too happy to satisfy his hunger without much fuss. In the film, on receiving his first ever burger from the McDonald’s Hamburgers stall, Kroc shyly asks the counter-boy where he is supposed to eat his burger, a scene which clearly shows how unusual was it at that time to have food ready to go or to eat something outside dining premises.
As a biopic, the film also fares very well. Keaton commands the screen. His character’s enthusiasm and determination really come through. We get the feeling that Ray Kroc is a dedicated, if somewhat eccentric, salesman who will stop at nothing on his way to success. Keaton’s outstanding performance sometimes even reminds of that in Burton’s “Beetlejuice” (1988), because, as Kroc, Keaton is so manically passionate about doing things slightly differently to produce a totally different outcome. “Franchise!”, shouts Kroc to the McDonald brothers, “this restaurant is just too good for just one location!”. Kroc starts with the slogan: “increase supply and demand will follow” to convince his potential customers to buy his mixers. However, it is clear that he has grander ambitions than to sell a couple of mixers, because he also goes by the mottos: “persistence and determination are all powerful for success” and “a man is what he thinks about all day long”. It could even be argued that recent films on food-making, such as “Burnt” (2015), have not done well because, unfortunately, they do not have the backing of a strong, magnetic personality and that means both a large-than-life film character and a matching actor. “The Founder” has this recipe for success.
However, unfortunately, about half way through, the film starts to get bland and runs out of ideas. This may be because the most exciting things have already happened, such as getting the business off the ground and franchising, and the movie does not know where to go afterwards. Even after fifty minutes of watching, the audience may rewind forward, because the same message gets recycles in the film with nothing new to say. After all, the efficiency and the precision of the fast-service – helped by a “well-orchestrated kitchen”, and the story behind the new architectural idea and the company’s logo have already been covered. Keaton ensures that the film is still watchable, but the novelty and enthusiasm of the McDonalds’ concept wears out. “McDonald’s can be the next American church”, says Kroc here, but we have already understood that much from the film’s very beginning, for example, when seeing the McDonald’s speedy service and the general efficiency of its operation. What the audience confronts in the film’s second half is the dissection of the company’s early financial troubles, the melodramatic squabbles of Keaton with the McDonald brothers, including on unfair contractual terms, and how powder was used to make milkshakes in a cost-efficient way. Here, it is interesting to watch the safe and cautious business approach of the McDonald brothers, and to compare it to the hectic and enthusiastic business approach of Kroc, but this is the only interesting thing here.
“The Founder” also faults disastrously when it comes to showing Kroc’s strained relationship with his wife and his increasing interest in Rollie Smith’s wife, Joan (Linda Cardellini). Keaton’s scenes with his on-screen wife may be some of the most boring sequences ever, and the film is really in need of editing and cutting when it comes to showing Kroc’s personal relationships. The bottom line is that this side of Kroc’s life is as interesting as watching some paint dry. It is obvious, predictable and soap-opera like, and does not work on any level in the film. There is a sequence when Kroc first meets Joan as she is playing a piano, and there is a nice confusion as to her identity, but apart from that touch of romantic inspiration, the romance between the two is more on the mechanically-friendly side, rather than on the passionately-animated one.
The other concern here may be the casting, which may turn this film into something unnecessarily creepy. One of the McDonald brothers is played by John Carroll Lynch, who also played a suspected murderer in the film “Zodiac” (2007). Seeing this actor here, in “The Founder”, cooking meat burgers after his character in “Zodiac” was suspected of murdering people, is unsettling. Another “eerie” addition to the cast is Patrick Wilson as Rollie Smith. Wilson was previously in such horror films as “Insidious” (2010) and “The Conjuring” (2013), and in his scenes in “The Founder”, it feels like we should expect a ghost behind his back anytime.
The McDonald’s story is an important one to be told through film. The first half of the film is really engrossing and inspirational, even for those who are familiar with the story, because it presents the story in a quirky, sometimes humorous way, and Keaton really shines in the role of Ray Kroc. However, unfortunately, if the film’s first half can be described as great, the film’s second half is mediocre at best, and this is due to the lack of sufficient material to use to fuel the drama and the film’s inability to incorporate Kroc’s personal relationships. If one can forgive and forget these evident faults, than this is definitely a film to watch – not only as a real eye-opener into the success of the world’s most recognisable fast food chains, but also for Keaton’s dedicated and enthusiastic performance. 7/10