Film Review: THE FOUNDER Is A Story of America
At the heart of The Founder lies one of the fundamental conflicts that have defined the history of post-War America. Are the values that represent us those of tradition, hard work, and small-knit communities, or are they those of corporations, faceless capitalism, and the bottom line? And at its center lives one of our most famous entrepreneurs—Ray Kroc (portrayed with his infatigable charm by Michael Keaton)—who envisioned, correctly it turns out, that his empire would come to be synonymous with “America” as much as the flag that hangs over the courthouse and the cross that decorates the neighborhood Church.
Together, these elements combine to produce a solid if familiar tale of innovation, perseverance, and, of course, betrayal—against the backdrop of amusing 1950s Americana. You’ve seen this play out before: you’ve seen The Social Network and Steve Jobs after all. But while The Founder isn’t quite Aaron Sorkin-esque, it still provides a delicious insight into the petty and transcendental dramas that shaped the products we (literally) devour.
In his dialogue, screenwriter Robert Siegel (The Wrestler) returns one too many times to lines from the self-help records that Ray Kroc apparently listened to obsessively. One mocks those monikers for a reason, and the film could do without most of them. But the story of a man that had a vision and used it to propel himself to mega-billions is inherently entrancing, for it is the story of the American Dream itself. The bumps along the road, the ruthless decisions, the ice cold duplicity, and the corporate treachery, are the icing on the cake that also happens to be good movie material.
When we first encounter Kroc, he is a middling salesman trying to unload to drive-in restaurants a machine that makes several milkshakes simultaneously. His travails across the Midwest make him increasingly frustrated with the slow service at these establishments, which dotted the American landscape in the 1950s, until he fortuitously encounters a new model being developed by the McDonald brothers in California.
There, the ingenious pair (played by veteran actors Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch from Fargo) have come up with a bevy of brilliant innovations that will soon augur in the era of fast food. Standardized production, no frills service, quick turnaround time, all while hewing closely to strict standards of quality and taste (well, not everything lasts forever).
The story that unfolds is told in repeated vignettes of cut-sequences that have come to define the somewhat choppy direction of John Lee Hancock, who also directed biopics such as The Blind Side and Saving Mr. Banks. But despite the news-reel feel that the film falls into at times, the story grips you simply because it is a lesson in corporate problem solving like no other.
How to expand this business while assuring that the franchisees stick to the same production standards? And how to really profit when the franchisor is taking in only 1.9% of profits, split with the brothers? The solutions to these problems come to Kroc from various sources—his own wit, his long-suffering wife (Laura Dern), business associates, and others—and are the highlights of the film.
The central and most interesting conflict, of course, is that which brews slowly and then rapidly between Kroc, who has a grand vision of expansion and cultural appropriation, and the traditionalist McDonald brothers, who jealously safeguard the small-town concept they envisioned. And though the outcome is never really in doubt—in the film, or in the golden arcs of American history—it is not less compelling to see it all unravel.
The Founder suffers from a lack of completed development of its central character, perhaps since we encounter this man relatively late into his life. Beyond the “persistence” credo he preaches and his obvious drive for success, we know little of his motivations. It matters not when the film is taking you through the details of the creation of this behemoth, but it costs the project when the nasty side of Kroc is revealed towards the end. It is harder, in a way, to feel the pity or sympathy that one comes to feel for Zuckeberg or Jobs at the end of their treatments.
In the end, the movie provides no solace for those who look nostalgically upon tradition or family-oriented values, any more than it will transcend deeply into movie history. But it is a light-hearted and amusing yet brutally honest depiction of how these things work: the good guy does not always win, and we still root for the bad guy anyways.
Americans have always looked up on people who lift themselves up to become very wealthy, regardless of the (a)moral path they may have chosen to get there. It is the American Way.