You don’t tell the story of one of America’s most ruthless, savage businessmen and expect children to come along with their parents to the theatre. That’s just not right. If you want to discuss a mean guy, your film should be equally mean. It should be rough round the edges. It needs to seem unfriendly, even hostile, so that we can recoil in disgust when Ray Kroc swindles the McDonald brothers out of their own company. This is a man who got away with intellectual theft and was punished with a fortune. We need to hate this guy. Instead, John Lee Hancock’s The Founder would seem right at home as an educational video at Disneyland.
It’s come to a point where biopics can no longer survive by merely recounting interesting events. We’ve seen three hundred too many of those. Unfortunately that’s what happens with the inexorable passing of time. It’s no longer enough to condense years of history into 120 minutes. Now your film has to seem like a character in itself.
That, above all, is what The Founder is missing. Personality. Ray Kroc is played by a renascent Michael Keaton, whose creased and weathered face threatens to crack every time his lips part. Kroc’s a salesman, and not a very good one, since he’s almost bankrupt and has more doors closed in his face than he opens. That’s until he meets the McDonald brothers, Mac and Dick (John Carroll Lynch and Nick Offerman), who have completely revolutionised the food business by turning a 30-minute wait for a meal into 30 seconds. Kroc falls in love with the concept and decides to franchise the restaurant, which marks the beginning of the McDonald brothers’ tragic descent into the bowels of obscurity.
The rest of the movie is really standard stuff, pausing at landmarks familiar to anyone who has seen a biographical movie. Since we know, more or less, what will become of Kroc’s endeavour, the film lures us with ominous throwaway gags, like Kroc stopping at a drive-in stand before meeting the McDonalds and complaining about the long wait time, and that they got his order wrong. Key characters are slipped in in typical biopic fashion. You know the drill. If a seemingly pointless individual is identified by last name first, like James Bond, or if someone just so happens to be eavesdropping on an important conversation and later extends a helping hand, or if the stunning blonde draws attention from the other side of the room while playing the piano, you know they’re going to be big players before the movie’s up. It’s the kind of sixth sense we develop after having seen all of it done before, and better, in movies past.
And that, as they say, is that. The Founder is smooth and well-made, but doesn’t offer much more than what you can learn by slouching in front of your computer, chowing down on a cheeseburger and reading about the history of McDonald’s on Wikipedia. Keaton is predictably manic, with lots of flailing limbs and disgruntled phone-slamming, and he doesn’t quite humanise Ray Kroc enough to make him work. We are taught, by the ceaseless pre-credits text, that the Kroc family donated millions upon millions of their wealth to various charities. Keaton’s Kroc would probably swindle those charities. We get none of his philanthropic sensibilities. It’s all business, business, business, engineered by a vile creature of money, framed by a movie that’s simply not angry enough.