The Founder, a docudrama about the ascendancy of McDonald’s, remembers a period before chains restaurants took over the country. It remembers when you could go into a small town, and you wouldn’t expect to find Walmart or countless fast food places. That context is key to the film’s success, because without it the idea of McDonald’s is not revolutionary. Directed by John Lee Hancock, who previously made Saving Mr. Banks and The Blind Side, this film is sentimental and cutting in equal measure. The labor innovations of fast food are revolutionary, as are the nationwide proliferation of mediocre burgers, so the restaurant’s legacy is a mixed bag. The Founder is also uneven, juxtaposing meandering plots alongside a sharp character study.
Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton) sells milkshake machines across the Midwest. His argument is simple: if you can make five milkshakes at a time, not one, then the machine pays for itself. No one cares, since drive-ins are perfectly happy to serve decent food at a leisurely oace. One day he gets a request for six machines, and out of sheer curiosity he heads to the San Bernardino restaurant that requested them. He finds thriving burger joint called McDonald’s, and it delivers good food quickly.
Co-owners Mac (John Carroll Lynch) and Dick McDonald (Nick Offerman) happily explain their streamlined food production, including their vision of the ubiquitous Golden Arches, but they caution Ray against franchising since multiple locations means a sacrifice of quality control. Ray convinces the brothers to become his business partners, anyway, and Ray opens dozens of restaurants all over the country. Still, he butts heads with the brothers, since his race for profits goes against Dick and Mac’s desire for the best product.
By putting the film primarily from Ray’s perspective, screenwriter Robert D. Siegel showcases the uneasy conflicts that come to define him. The most entertaining sequence happens early, where Dick and Mac explain their story through flashback. In a way, their assembly line discoveries are too good for the American Dream: they see problems within their industry, look at the data, and improve them. But they are not good capitalists, exactly, since Dick and Mac are not greedy – they want a business that meets their impossibly high standards.
Some of this philosophy rubs off on Ray, who tries to keep the business run with the same efficiency as the San Bernadino location. Hancock and Siegel leave enough room so our sympathies can shift: on one hand, Dick and Mac are a little too cautious, but when Ray suggests using a powdered milkshake formula, then that’s just too far. Lynch and Offerman play decent men, if a little stubborn, while Keaton’s turn as Ray veers toward villainy. Like any self-respecting late-stage capitalist, he no longer deigns to explain himself because the soaring profits are proof enough.
Aside from the battle of wills, The Founder is about Ray’s personal path to becoming a titan of industry. His biggest critic and supporter is his wife Ethel (Laura Dern), who sees through him and wants nothing more than to socialize with their friends at the nearby country club. There are some interesting class dynamics at play. Ray feels out of place among the businessman who laugh at his crazy ideas, and then a chance meeting with businessman Harry J. Sonneborn (BJ Novak) changes everything: instead of leasing the franchise to a new McDonald’s restaurant, he leases the land on which the restaurant is built. This means that Ray can stop pitching to the leisure set, and instead find hungry managers who will make sure that the restaurant runs efficiently.
Throughout scenes like this, Hancock implies that Ray’s ability to shift between upper and middle/lower class – all the while selling the virtues of middle management – is how McDonald’s are now everywhere. This is interesting material, particularly in light of modern business practices, and yet The Founder circles around its conclusions one too many times. Character choices sometimes should feel inevitable, but not just because the screenplay rehashes the same food for thought like yesterday’s McNuggets.
The Founder ends with legal conflicts between Ray and the McDonald brothers. Its conclusion and hostility are like a precursor to The Social Network, another film about a hungry businessman whose meteoric rise is unprecedented. The differences between The Founder and The Social Network are like a time capsule of different periods of American prosperity: while Ray Kroc is sued after a lengthy business arrangement, Mark Zuckerberg is sued almost immediately – facing more defendants. There is an innocence to the McDonald brothers, and that innocence applies to Ray as well: no one quite knew where their business would lead, except The Founder argues Ray was more than eager to jettison any idea or any person that slowed him down. This the cinematic equivalent of a Big Mac: delicious, easily consumed, and ultimately forgettable.