Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: John Le Hancock
Stars: Michael Keaton, Nick Offerman, John Carroll Lynch, Laura Dern, Linda Cardellini, Patrick Wilson, B J Novak, Mike Pniewski.
The Founder was inspired by the biography of Ray Kroc, the man who turned a small hamburger stand in San Bernardino California into McDonalds, a fast food empire spanning the globe, employing thousands, and reaping in billions of dollars every year. It feeds approximately 1% of the world’s population, and its golden arches are one of the most readily recognised symbols on the planet.
How did he do it? “Persistence,” says Kroc (played by Michael Keaton), but it is his steely determination to succeed that initially seems to embody the American Dream. Kroc is a travelling milk shake salesman from Illinois trying to sell his machines to a less than enthusiastic market in post-WWII America. But when he received a call about a small burger joint in San Bernardino in California that placed an order for eight machines Kroc’s interest was piqued. Thinking a mistake had been made he decided to check it out.
Arriving at the small burger stand, Kroc met Dick (Nick Offerman) and Mac (John Carroll Lynch) McDonald. The pair had created a small hamburger stand that served up burgers in thirty seconds, not thirty minutes, and it seemed that they had established a thriving concern. They had perfected a quick and efficient way of serving up popular food items and micro-managed every aspect of the business. An extended flashback sequence shows how the McDonald brothers created their business model.
The title is somewhat ironic as Kroc didn’t “found” the McDonald’s fast food chain, but stole the idea from the McDonald brothers. Inspired by their unique set up, Kroc realised the potential and he slowly stole the company away from them. The McDonald brothers could easily have made a fortune from their fast food idea but were not driven by the same ambition or business sense of Kroc. Kroc and the brothers engaged in some terse and prickly exchanges over the future direction of the business. They were reluctant to franchise for fear of compromised standards, a fear that Kroc was more than willing to exploit. Harry Sonneborn (B J Novak) was a financial whizz who informed Kroc of the best way to wrest the business away from the brothers by owning the land on which the store was situated. Thus his empire was born.
The film also shares some similarities with The Social Network, which explored how Mark Zuckerberg exploited an idea by two fellow Harvard students and subsequently turned Facebook into a global phenomenon and multi-billion dollar business.
The Founder has been written by Robert D Siegel, who also wrote The Wrestler, which gave Mickey Rourke one of the best roles of his career, and it gives Keaton one of the juiciest roles of his career as well. Siegel imbues this biopic with lots of insights into Kroc’s character, and injects a healthy dose of cynicism and some generous touches of humour into the material.
Keaton is having a career renaissance at the moment. He was part of the ensemble cast of both Birdman and Spotlight, the previous two Oscar winning films. And now he delivers an Oscar worthy performance as Kroc, painting him as a ruthless entrepreneur and venal opportunist. Keaton apparently watched Glengarry Glen Ross and studied the performances of Michael Douglas in Wall Street and Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf Of Wall Street to get a handle on his rapacious character and the psychology and single-minded philosophy of Kroc. Indeed it seems that greed was certainly good for Kroc. He is hard to like, but Keaton brings an oily charm to his performance as he peels away layers. “Contracts are like hearts, they’re meant to be broken,” Kroc tells the McDonald brothers during one of their increasingly heated phone discussions. In his 2004 song Boom, Like That, Mark Knopfler summed up Kroc’s personality with the lines: “It’s dog eat dog rat eat rat… Sometimes you gotta be an s.o.b.”
Offerman and Lynch are good as the idealistic and somewhat naive brothers who watch in frustration and bewilderment as their business and livelihood is slowly stripped away from them, but they are comprehensively overshadowed by Keaton’s powerful performance. Laura Dern is underused as Kroc’s long suffering and largely ignored first wife Ethel. Linda Cardellini also registers strongly as Joan Smith, the wife of one of Kroc’s franchise holders who becomes his second wife.
The Founder is a bit of a change of pace for director John Lee Hancock, whose previous films like The Blind Side and Saving Mr Banks were more warm hearted and uplifting biopics. There is some great production design from Michael Coreblith that lends authenticity to the film’s 50s period setting. John Schwartzman’s cinematography also evokes the era.