As a title, The Founder is a bit of wordplay meant to test your knowledge of Americana. You see The Founder is about Ray Kroc, the man who founded a fast-food franchise empire, but who did not found the restaurant he made famous: McDonald’s. Originally a California burger stand, McDonald’s was founded by brothers Mac and Dick, who ended up going into business with Kroc, who convinced them to let him franchise their assembly-line inspired fast-food process. Kroc turned out to be a Thomas Edison-sized dickbag, and he ended up not only stealing McDonald’s the restaurant from the brothers, but also McDonald’s the name and the McDonalds’ share of the profits.
The Founder is, in a lot of ways, a solid movie. Ray Kroc is the kind of charismatic scumbag that makes for a good movie villain, and the story of the McDonald brothers is the sort of American Dream cautionary tale that makes for good cinema. And the movie is beautifully cast, with Michael Keaton doing fantastic work as Kroc, and Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch starring as the McDonald brothers, Dick and Mac, respectively. Screenwriter Robert Siegel (The Wrestler, Big Fan) specializes in stories about schmoes getting flattened by their own dreams, and director John Lee Hancock (Saving Mr. Banks, The Blind Side) has a knack for handsome biopics.
There’s really only one problem with The Founder, but it’s a huge f*cking issue. And that is the film’s treatment of Ray Kroc. Yes, the man built an empire, but he did it by flat-out cheating the McDonald brothers out of their own legacy. Every time his name appears in the history books it ought to be asterisked for cheating. Everything about Kroc begs to be the film’s villain, but between Keaton’s high-energy performance—he is really great—and an authorial tone that refuses to have an opinion, Kroc comes off as kind of admirable. Oh sure, he’s doing despicable things by the end but—but—but BUSINESS! PROGRESS! AMERICAN DREAM! Well what about the McDonald brothers’ American Dream?
(This is my fear for The Current War, frankly, that Thomas Edison will be presented as a legitimate person and not a robber baron who stole and cheated his way into a reputation for genius he in no way deserves. We have got to stop celebrating liars and snakes who ruin people’s lives to get their way, that is how we have ended up here today, with President Trump.)
A sharper version of The Founder staunchly sides with the McDonald brothers, anchoring the story around them and their pioneering fast-food process. Their commitment to serving people quick burgers is equaled by their commitment to quality ingredients like real ice cream in the milkshakes and fresh produce for their burgers. Ray Kroc should be the interloping wolf threatening their success with his quantity-over-quality mindset and total lack of business ethics.
The Founder should be a cautionary tale, a sad story about a pair of brothers done in by a ruthless businessman who never weighed the cost of his own success against anyone else’s suffering. Instead, despite a trio of very fine performances, it’s oddly hollow. It is a Kroc burger.
Here's Michael Keaton dining out at Craig's last night in LA.