One of the most telling details about The Founder, John Lee Hancock’s lively, bleak drama about the origins of the McDonald’s fast-food empire, is that the movie never actually makes McDonald’s food look tempting. The Founder is a compelling story about American inspiration, ambition, and greed, but it’s fairly agnostic about the actual product being sold. It could just as well be a movie about a hyper-successful shoe company, if that company had set off a behind-the-scenes war for control and fundamentally changed the way Americans walk. And that actually makes The Founder a much better experience than it would be if Hancock cared intimately about the quality of McDonald’s burgers. The Founder is based on a true story — with all the caveats “based on” implies — but ultimately, it’s about the commentary on American innovation and capitalism, not about product placement.
In that sense, The Founder is remarkably like David Fincher’s The Social Network, which heavily fictionalized the story of Facebook’s creation without particularly touching on why the social platform is such an addictive draw for some people, or how it changed the way large segments of the world interact with each other today. The Founder doesn’t have The Social Network’s blistering pacing or malicious, manic edge, but it does follow many of the same story beats, beginning with the way it posits its protagonist as a hungry, resentful outsider looking for a model to exploit. And just as with The Social Network, The Founder’s Ray Kroc finds a way to expand the initial spark of someone else’s idea into an empire, by expanding its reach and appeal, and ruthlessly leveraging the power that comes with success.
The Founder opens with Michael Keaton as Kroc delivering a strained sales pitch for a milkshake mixer directly to the camera with all the sweaty, unctuous desperation of Jack Lemmon in Glengarry Glen Ross. “Increase supply and demand will follow,” Kroc claims, in what could be the film’s tagline. It’s 1955, and Kroc is nearing the end of what’s clearly a long run of get-rich-slow schemes that have taken all his hustle and confidence, and left him hawking outdated equipment from one run-down highway diner to the next. Then he gets a surprisingly large mixer order from a thriving San Bernardino, California mini-chain called McDonald’s, and he sets out on a cross-country trip to check out their business model. The owners, brothers Dick (Parks And Recreation’s Nick Offerman) and Mac McDonald (Zodiac’s John Carroll Lynch) welcome him with open arms, eager to show off their organizational successes to anyone capable of appreciating them.
While The Founder is primarily a historical drama, it’s often wryly hilarious as well, and the scene where a shocked Kroc takes in the McDonald brothers’ innovations — including food that (gasp!) comes in a bag and (double gasp!) can be eaten without silverware — is a particular hoot. Films about history often emphasize how much societies change in terms of injustice and intolerance, but they rarely focus on tiny watershed moments like this, where one man is flabbergasted to realize that specialization and a custom-designed assembly line system can be used to prepare food even before it’s ordered. But the moment that follows, where Hancock focuses on characters eagerly snarfing down greasy hamburger patties on outsized, bland-looking buns, is even more telling. He doesn’t try to make the food look appealing. He just makes it look profitable, and Kroc immediately wants in on the profits.
As with The Social Network, there are no heroes in The Founder. Dick and Mac are portrayed as innovative men who care deeply about the quality of their product, and show an almost unseemly joy in designing the perfect fast-food kitchen. But they’re also sullen, reactionary sticks in the mud who can’t see the genius of Kroc’s expansion plans, and spend months mulling over — or just ignoring — relatively minor decisions while Kroc, bound by his contract with them, waits for an answer. Keaton, meanwhile, plays Kroc much as he played Broadway impresario Riggan Thomson in Birdman: as a manic striver held back by all the little minds around him, and certain he deserves better things largely because he wants them. Even when he’s succeeding, he still comes across as unctuous and slimy, perpetually bathed in his own flop-sweat. He’s a capitalist villain and hero in the same package, an entrepreneur whose biggest innovation is selling out. But he still represents the gleaming, fast-paced future, while the McDonald’s brothers are the dour, cranky face of the past. (Offerman’s typically straight-faced, crotchety performance is a film highlight, but watching Kroc try to deal with his nay-saying may give audiences their biggest moments of sympathy for the devil.) The best parts of The Founder are about the struggle between the two sides, with Kroc representing cultural change and the undiluted profit motive, and the McDonald brothers as tragic dinosaurs representing hard work, integrity, and community.
But The Founder’s biggest strength is that it doesn’t lose the story or the characters in the larger metaphor about the gap between creation and exploitation. The script, by Big Fan writer-director (and former Onion editor-in-chief) Robert D. Siegel, portrays Kroc as a fairly repellent man who butters up his opponents, then backstabs them. But it also finds a little sympathy for the desperate hunger that drives him, and for the way he sees expansion as its own worthy goal. The film doesn’t just resemble The Social Network: its cynical humor and perky good cheer are also somewhat familiar from Steven Soderbergh’s The Informant!, another film about a self-made, self-deluded, inherently selfish man who might be awful to know, but is still plenty of fun to watch.
The Founder could stand to do a lot more with some of the side details — women have little place in this story, and the side plot involving Kroc’s neglected, pained first wife (Laura Dern) and his pursuit of a second woman (Linda Cardellini) is particularly undercooked and clumsy. The film could stand to spend more time on figuring out why people engage with McDonald’s, why “fast and cheap” so quickly trumps quality, and why Kroc’s counterintuitive “supply creates demand” statement appears to be ironically true. The metaphor doesn’t undermine the story, but it isn’t entirely developed, either: the movie is more concerned with Kroc’s personality than with the landscape he entered, and how he changed it. And curiously, it’s particularly uninterested in Kroc’s real-world obsession with giving customers a uniform cross-country dining experience, and how much that became a fast-food selling point.
What’s most missing in The Founder is an awareness of McDonald’s customers as anything but a predictable yet amorphous blob of hunger, sweeping in to consume everything the burger-sellers have to offer, and leaving nothing but money and litter behind. There’s a pretty hilarious gag about the brothers deliberately making McDonald’s less appealing to teenagers, in order to dodge the juvenile-delinquent bobby-sox crowd and their repellent rock n roll. But the broadness of the approach also makes entire demographics look like consumer units in a city-sim game, boosting one player’s stat while jinxing another.
But those faults aside, The Founder is remarkably entertaining, and it brings a caustic mirth and an even-handed fascination to a behind-the-scenes business story that may not initially sound interesting to viewers. When The Social Network was first greenlit, the internet lit up with snark about the idea of a Facebook movie. A McDonald’s movie sounds just as unlikely as a left-field hit. But apparently Kroc is right about supply driving demand in this case, as well. The Founder may never be as popular as the McDonald’s food it’s highlighting. But it’s a much more appealing sell.