I doubt there are many people left in the world whose lives have not been touched in some way by the fast food franchise McDonald’s. Even those who have adopted a strictly organic lifestyle, or those scared away by documentary filmmaker Morgan Spurlock’s resounding success Super Size Me, which actually managed to effect change to the restaurant’s menu, have no doubt at least one time in their lives dined in the establishment, whether for a quick salad, or cheat meal, or to quell their kids incessant cries with a Happy Meal – I’ll be the first to admit it. There have been years I’ve practically lived there during their annual Monopoly game, and I’m old enough to lament the demise of their fried pies; cherry was always my favorite. When Michael Keaton, as Ray Kroc, the famous entrepreneur who turned McDonald’s into the biggest fast food empire in the world, compares the golden arches to crosses and steeples on American churches, and declares the restaurant to be a new house of worship he honestly isn’t far from the truth, especially when you look at the drive-thru lines around lunchtime. And it’s precisely this connection that director John Lee Hancock hopes to exploit, and carry his audience through a film that is sorely lacking in believable characters or drama, ultimately as empty as the food is void of nutritional value.
The Founder takes forever to get going. We are introduced to sad sack entrepreneur and absentee husband Ray Kroc, as he hopelessly shops around an unwieldy shake mixer to various drive-ins and restaurants, hoping to make a few bucks for his fledgling company. It’s a tone not unlike many biopics, that serves to immediately ingratiate the character to the audience, as an underdog just looking for a bone. But once the thirty minute mark is passed, and that’s still all the film has accomplished as part of its subtext, without scratching the surface of some hidden character flaw, or deep-seated motivation, or without tying him to any other real character in the world to show the effects of his actions, it’s clear The Founder only aims to ignite our superficial notions of the history of McDonald’s, and become a two hour excuse to watch the money and the clockwork machinations of running a business and building a capitalist empire.
Once Kroc discovers McDonald’s, after owner/operators Richard and Maurice McDonalds (Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch) call to order an unprecedented six shake machines for their San Bernardino hot spot, and the admittedly initial razzle-dazzle of learning how they came up with such a winning concept wears off, The Founder devolves into auto-pilot as the businessman systematically convinces them to grow the franchise, and then slowly squeezes them out when his innovative desires to save money and cut corners meet their staunch disapproval, wanting to maintain quality control over each location and micromanaging everything to a fault. Once Offerman and Lynch share their engrossing origin story, which makes great use of the former actor’s deadpan delivery and comic roots, they basically become disembodied voices over the phone, narrative roadblocks and crutches that randomly pop up whenever things need to move forward.
Sadly, the only other character that matters in this film is Kroc’s wife, played by Laura Dern, first introduced after he discovers the restaurant, and used solely as a “you’re never home” call to his conscience, in a manufactured, lazy attempt to develop some kind of drama around his enterprise and life’s dream of striking it rich and making it big. Hancock spends so much time introducing McDonalds it is quite laughable just how quickly after coming home the first time that Kroc and his wife get into an argument about how much time he spends away from home, no doubt finally aware of the ticking clock on the story in a mad rush to spark some drama. Without fail Laura Dern pops up every ten minutes or so to drop a giant buzzkill on Kroc’s entrepreneurial party, and it soon becomes a shame how such a unique and talented actress is relegated to such an obvious, stock character. It calls attention to how very little of a story is actually here.
The rest of The Founder runs primarily on auto-pilot, after the dazzling wizardry of the hamburger assembly line wears off. Kroc wants to make a change, he calls the owners, they reject the idea, and he finds a way to do it anyway. Repeat ad nauseam. And all the while Keaton, clearly riding the wave from his empty gestures in Birdman, is left in the spotlight to chew the scenery without any underlying trajectory or arc for his character, just another larger than life figure from history whose greed and ambition is meant to substitute for character development, and it’s expected that that is enough for audiences. The Founder‘s lack of coherent narrative and well-drawn characters suggests a film meant as a movie-of-the-week, or at the very least direct-to-video. By the end of the film we’ve learned nothing at all about Ray Kroc, taking away only Hancock’s empty calories, which like fast food, leaves a bad, distasteful feeling in the stomach shortly after ingesting. In that sense he has truly captured the essence of fast food, in the way we should all be admonished about eating it.
The Verdict: Pan