The filmography of Texas-born director and writer John Lee Hancock indicates a fascination with major pieces of Americana like baseball, football, and Walt Disney, the latter serving as both a subject (Saving Mr. Banks) and a sometime employer (Banks, along with The Rookie and the ill-fated Touchstone production The Alamo). So it makes sense that Hancock would tackle the American institution known as McDonald’s in The Founder, a second-act biopic that explains how, exactly, the restaurant went from a single location in San Bernardino, California, to 118 countries across the globe.
It’s more surprising, in the context of Hancock’s other work, that this origin story involves the wheelings and dealings of Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton), a salesman who, essentially, filched a family business away from the actual McDonalds, Dick (Nick Offerman) and Mac (John Carroll Lynch). In contrast with the folksy Disneyfication on display in Saving Mr. Banks, The Founder turns out to be a timely story of a businessman without ideas of his own who nonetheless becomes successful by stubborn force of will—and a willingness to run roughshod over both his competition and his collaborators. Kroc is sort of an inverse Donald Trump: He makes money by obsessively trading on someone else’s name.
Kroc begins the movie as a salesman unsuccessfully peddling milkshake mixers to drive-ins and burger joints; the long wait times and frequent errors at these establishments make the impeccably fast and efficient service at that first San Bernardino McDonald’s stand out all the more. At first, Kroc, dissatisfied with his lot in life and his merely supportive (not avariciously ambitious) wife Ethel (Laura Dern), seems to merely glimpse an opportunity for something better. But simply convincing the McDonald brothers to let him help them franchise their operation turns out not to be enough—and sometimes The Founder proceeds as if Hancock himself is a little bit surprised by what he’s explaining about a ubiquitous aspect of American life.
The movie, from a screenplay by former Onion writer Robert Siegel, doesn’t exactly aim for dispassionate objectivity, depicting Lynch’s Mac as a friendly, gentle-natured man, and even the more gruff Dick as an exacting perfectionist without strong people skills. But it nonetheless approaches Kroc with some ambiguity, in that the movie mostly sticks to his point of view, and doesn’t portray him as an unadulterated monster. How could it, really, with Keaton in the part, dominating scene after scene? Kroc has vision and drive, if not necessarily talent, per se (one of his biggest innovations, at least so far as the enriching of his personal wealth is concerned, comes from a third party). The movie leaves room to wonder if there’s something extraordinary, if not exactly respectable, about his ability to reshape the fast-food industry to his liking
As it turns out, Hancock is not the ideal fit for the queasy mix of fascination, sympathy, and discomfort that Siegel brought to movies like The Wrestler and Big Fan. The Founder is drier than either of those movies, which means it’s less funny but also has even less potential for sentiment. Hancock’s reputation suggests a polished straight shooter, perhaps a sort of Eastwood Lite, but here he doesn’t master the complexities of the material. The basic fundamentals of the movie are strong—the performances are solid, the story moves along—but Hancock never fully harnesses the visual and audio components to push the movie further: The score, while not exactly overbearing, swells in sometimes strange (but never quite satirical) ways. And in an early scene of Keaton by himself, leaning on his car, Hancock cuts together seven or eight different angles, as if nervous that the audience won’t accept a master shot.
This leaves a compelling (if sometimes slightly underexplained) business procedural, rife with details about franchise laws, handshake agreements, and contract negotiations, plus plenty of the invaluable Michael Keaton. He opens the movie facing the camera directly as he gives what turns out to be a sales pitch to a prospective customer, and in one of Hancock’s canniest movies, he revisits that position late in the movie. Both shots capture the huckster-ish intensity that makes Keaton such a great fit as Kroc. He’s played fast-talking hustlers before, but The Founder gives him plenty of opportunity to fail: at selling, at charming, at getting his reluctant partners on board with his plans. Kroc looks and sounds like an older version of the Keaton wiseass oddball. But he’s really just a relentless striver, who has started to go after everything he wants—like, say, a business associate’s wife (Linda Cardellini, typically good if also typically underused).
The story of Kroc going after McDonald’s, a business that begins as the pride of a couple of super-efficient hard workers but becomes both much more and much less, has a methodical quality—one that does play to Hancock’s strengths, even when he doesn’t slam the material home. At some point, his triumph becomes inevitable. To the movie’s credit, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly when—though Kroc, naturally, has an opinion about that, too.
[Editor’s note: Robert D. Siegel used to write for The Onion. He has never met Jesse Hassenger.]