It’s telling that the Weinstein Company moved ‘The Founder’ from its original release date closer to the awards season, thinking that perhaps they’d found that special sauce that would bring all the ingredients together.
After all, John Lee Hancock’s new movie, a biopic of Ray Kroc, the (sort of) founder of McDonalds, has all the tasty bits. A juicy performance from Michael Keaton, who has been on the Oscar shortlist the last few years, a story based on reality, and an oddly timely look at the American dream of yesteryear—you know, when America was great again—that is eventually curdled by sourness and greed.
Let’s dispel the notion, however, that ‘The Founder’ is anything like ‘There Will Be Blood’ with cheese, though it does have its cheesy moments, propelled by the pedestrian score from Carter Burwell. Keaton’s performance is the movie’s Big Mac, but as sincere as it might be, the plotting is as unremarkable as a value menu and as straightforward as a drive through.
The movie opens in 1954, as Kroc, then an aging food services salesman, is flogging a milkshake machine that can grind up more than one shake at a time at the sort of restaurants where your meal is delivered by a cute girl on roller skates. He’s the sort of guy who can’t catch a break, and his long-suffering wife, Ethel (an underused Laura Dern) is miserable and lonely, since Ray is constantly on the road, and can barely be bothered to do anything fun when he is actually in town.
All that changes when Ray gets a surprising order from Mac and Dick McDonald (John Carroll Lynch and Nick Offerman, respectively), a pair of brothers who have opened a revolutionary new restaurant in San Bernardino. Focusing on a bare bones menu and high-tech kitchen equipment, they siblings can barely keep up with the demand for their burgers, fries, and shakes. Ray realizes, all of a sudden, that after all this time, that this restaurant is what he’s been looking for all this time.
It takes some time to win over the McDonalds, especially Dick, who is the brains of the operation, but once Ray talks them into allowing him to franchise their concept, the idea takes off, and soon he has a plan to put those golden arches from coast-to-coast, even if he has to go to war with the McDonalds and their small-time dreams to make it happen.
It’s amidst all of this that we see the other side of Ray come out, the cutthroat business man willing to cut corners, boost profits, and go after his competition, even if his competition is his own business partners. It’s icky, squeezing out of him like a dribble of yellow mustard on a white shirt.
This is also the part of Hancock’s movie that is the least fleshed out. Keaton gives a magnetic, wonderfully charismatic performance, and perhaps that’s part of the problem—his version of Ray is just so damn likeable, and the McDonald brothers are so, well, unreasonable, that when he shifts from a nice guy trying to sell burgers into the Darth Vader of the fast food industry, the transition feels as fleshed out as a limp French fry or an overcooked McNugget.
There is something appealing, though, about ‘The Founder.’ It’s enjoyable and often funny, filled with savored moments. That’s not unlike the salty goodness of a McDonalds meal itself, which usually tastes delicious when it’s being consumed. At the same time, it’s after the fact that we often feel unsatisfied. And possibly gassy.