Director: John Lee Hancock
Stars: Michael Keaton, Nick Offerman
3 (out of 5) Globes
In the mid-’90s, screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski created their own cottage industry, making biopics that played like parodies. “Ed Wood” and “The People vs. Larry Flynt” were stirring, Horatio Alger-style tales of triumph, only for figures who were either considered failures or simply unseemly. “The Founder” plays like one of those crossed with a “Wolf of Wall Street”-style takedown of unbridled capitalism. Its hero is a huckster and a cheat and a scoundrel. And he won. He was a loser who became a winner. The only people who come out of the film inspired will be greed monsters, or those who vote them into the White House.
The title itself is a dark joke. Our protagonist, one Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton), didn’t found McDonald’s; he just popularized it after swindling the original owners. It’s the mid-’50s and Ray is an aging schemer barely eking by after decades of get-rich-quick schemes. When he happens upon a little burger shack in San Bernardino — run by hard-working Dick and Mac McDonald (Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch) — he’s wowed by their “symphony of efficiency,” which elides waiters and even inside seating to bring fresh, quality food seconds after ordering. It’s a revolutionary idea, but the McDonalds are loath to franchise, for fear of, among other things, declining quality control. They reluctantly let Ray spread it to the Midwest, fearing this oily, sweaty, desperate fast-talker may try to screw them.
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He did, and the empire you see today — second globally only to Subway, of all joints — is thanks to the film’s relentlessly backstabbing lead character. That “The Founder” was directed by John Lee Hancock, he of rose-colored and sometimes clueless inspirational fare like “The Blind Side” and “Saving Mr. Banks,” sounds lame on paper. But in practice it’s productively counterintuitive. Hancock could never make a brash eight megaton-bomb like Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street.” He can make a piece of cornball, though, and when cheesy music and sun-dappled shots are applied to a character as Machiavellian as Ray Kroc, the result is a poison pen letter sneaked into the mainstream. Even a simple, Norman Rockwellian shot of a McDonald’s outpost at night, bathed in golden neon, comes off as vicious satire.
Like most “relevant” films being released in the wake of the election, “The Founder” was never intended to speak directly about Trump, yet it ends up feeling heavy-handed all the same. It’s the drama equivalent of a one-joke comedy, though its insights and topicality are more than skin deep. It doesn’t just argue that America will always love a conman; it offers the story of McDonald’s eastward expansion — with a Midwestener nicking an idea from Californians, amusingly — as the moment when America embraced all that was bad for society (mega-capitalism, corporate synergy, cost-cutting over quality) andstarted its descent towards fiscal inequality and our 46th president. It draws a line in the sand between people, like the McDonalds, who strive for success and those, like Ray Kroc, who want it all, and more besides. “We are not greedy men,” Dick sternly tells Ray during one of many heated phonecalls, all while Ray is busy converting regular Joes — small business owners, bible salesmen, Shriners — to his super-sized new version of the American dream.
Even with its over-determination to stay on message — and handful of couldn’t resist nudge-nudgey groaners, like Dick averring, “The next thing you’ll be saying the fries should be frozen!” — there are still grace notes to be enjoyed. Hancock knows how to find visually elegant ways to depict the art of creation, and he scores a coup early on: Dick choreographing a mock version of the first McDonald’s kitchen on a tennis court, employees swirling and darting like dancers over chalk outlines à la Lars von Trier’s “Dogville.” No movie about McDonald’s could ever qualify as “food porn,” and yet close-ups of actual beef patties sizzling on skillets are near-“Babette’s Feast”-level.
And at least it’s ideally cast. Laura Dern is stuck with a stock type well beneath her — Ray’s long-suffering wife, whom he too swindles — but she’s such a powerful screen presence that she can’t be ignored. Watching Offerman go from his usual burly libertarian tree stump to defeated and hunched-over is truly devastating. And Keaton is perfect casting: a comeback kid, bringing back his ’80s live wire vibe to a role that requires the annoying energy of someone who’s fallen on hard times. His latest film is a touch too tidy and self-satisfied, but that doesn’t mean its blows don’t land.
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge