Gather ye ‘round the stoop, and I’ll tell you a tale of an American businessman who became a success…despite his immoral actions? What an inspiration he is. Gaze upon him in all his shameful, shameful glory. You may not like him – and the film in question, The Founder, virtually demands you not – but guys like him run the world. They do not innovate, they merely tweak. They work hard, but do not create. Ray Kroc (portrayed here by Michael Keaton) starts the film as a fifty-something traveling salesman and ends it the CEO of a major corporation preparing a speech honoring Ronald Reagan. One doesn’t rise that high that late in life without a little elbow grease. That he buries his business partners and wife in so doing…well, can’t make an omelette (or an Egg McMuffin) and all that.
The Founder, written by Robert D. Siegel (The Wrestler, Big Fan) and directed by John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side, Saving Mr. Banks), fancies itself in the model of The Social Network, and undoubtedly someone hoped the combination of two filmmakers as disparate as these two would yield similarly fruitful results as the famed Aaron Sorkin/David Fincher combo. I don’t have much insight into The Founder’s development process, but the results suggest less of Sorkin and Fincher’s willingness to challenge the material and reach a consensus than it does two people working on very different wavelengths.
Siegel’s screenplay, while not overly principled, flounders as Hancock shows too much concern over holding the audience’s attention. He steers his actors from location to location, shouting match to shouting match, with more than a few montages to ratchet up drama that’s plenty compelling on its own. Kroc’s success hinged on coercing Dick (Nick Offerman) and Mac (John Carroll Lynch) McDonald to grant him franchising operations of their McDonald’s restaurant, which he leveraged into greater and greater control, eventually overpowering their legal rights with his financial might. Dick and Mac start with a great idea – hamburgers served quickly, maintaining quality control – only to see their grand concept watered down, diminished, and exploited. The arc of McDonald’s is practically the prototypical story of American business from the early 1950s to late 1970s. It doesn’t need much embellishment to get our attention.
Luckily, Hancock also invests in more effective forms of persuasion, namely in his cast. Keaton can play this opportunism without breaking a sweat, and what sets apart his talent is in allowing Ray a sliver of doubt that nobody else is allowed to see. We can notice when Ray is really confident and when he isn’t entirely sure he can get away with what he’s about to attempt. This is grounded in the early scenes showing his work as a salesman, making ends meet pushing mediocre products. Because we know Ray’s salesman face, we can see through him in the scenes where he’s just trying to get a deal (most scenes with Dick and Mac) and when he genuinely believes what he’s saying, even if it is a sales pitch (especially when recruiting potential franchisees). Keaton distinguishes these modes expertly; even when other characters in the scene suspect they may be getting hustled, we understand how Ray was able to coerce them.
Even better are Offerman and Lynch, who have the very easy, natural give and take of people who have spent their lives together. There is no sense of animosity between them, only an understanding of when and how to push and support one another. Dick is the more calculating of the two – he came up with the McDonald’s preparation process, and is determined to refine it even further – while Mac is big-hearted, friendly, and trusting. They make a good team. Better, they give the audience someone to root for, and to cast against Ray’s ruthlessness, without denying them their humanity. They struggle with ego; Dick can be callous. But they’re essentially decent guys trying to run a good restaurant.
This central appeal carries The Founder far, but lack of directorial inspiration hinders its aspirations to greatness. Hancock and cinematographer John Schwartzman have the right aesthetic – there’s a sting to seeing such foul play in the context of small-town America, where the restaurants and Ray reside – but Hancock’s lack of patience and trust in his audience water down the drama. The film is considerably better than what I expected from a Weinstein-distributed, Hancock-directed Oscar-aimed film, but its grander ambitions feel thwarted at every turn. To wander into this film would reveal a treat; to plan around it, a disappointment. Like a trip to McDonald’s, managed expectations go a long way.