Are you looking for a career opportunity at McDonald’s? If you’ve ever worked for a gigantic, soulless corporation, then I’m sure you’re painfully, intimately familiar with those godawful corporate recruitment videos they show during training. There’s always a section about the founder of the company, and how the bright idea for the business came in a sudden flash of great import, like Muhammad receiving the Qur’an or something. While John Lee Hancock’s The Founder isn’t quite pitched at the level of a training video, don’t be surprised if snippets of it appear at McDonald’s corporate conferences.
The film begins in 1954, with Ray Kroc a fairly pathetic milkshake mixer salesman. It seems he drives all over the country cold-calling businesses in desperate attempts to sell these hefty metal gadgets. We later learn that this behaviour is nothing new; his life has been a series of pipe-dream business ideas that have left him struggling to make ends meet. After a series of crushing rejections, his office calls. Some tiny restaurant in San Bernadino wants six of them. This can’t be right, Kroc thinks, and calls them to find out where the mistake happened. There’s a mistake, all right. They want eight.
Kroc heads out to visit this milkshake mixing Mecca, and is astounded at what he finds. Dozens of people lined up, ready to buy hamburgers. Not only that, each customer only has to wait thirty seconds for his order! He sees dollar signs right away: franchises. Though the McDonald brothers who own the restaurant are initially reluctant, eventually they draw up a contract letting Kroc set up franchises in the Midwest. The only drawback? They have full say over every decision affecting the business, and Kroc’s cut is less than two measly percent.
Michael Keaton is great as the founder in the title, but he’s slightly hindered by the fact that Ray Crock is pretty one-note. Screenwriter Robert Siegel gives Kroc exactly one shade, and that’s driven. From the beginning to the end, it’s a steady quest for more more more, and woe be to anyone who gets in Kroc’s way. Hancock actually references this in the film, in an exchange curiously missing from the screenplay. There is a scene where Kroc’s wife, played by divine goddess of the silver screen Laura Dern, asks him when enough will be enough. How much longer can he keep up this pursuit? ‘Probably forever,’ he replies matter-of-factly.
What’s sort of interesting is that Ray Kroc doesn’t have any ideas of his own. The speedy-time cooking method, powdered milkshakes to save refrigeration costs, the eventual decision to invest in land and lease it to the franchisees… all given to him from other people. He excels in determination, which he sharpens by listening to a self-help record over and over again. His sole virtue is persistence. The Founder paints Kroc as the Capitalist id unleashed and allowed to roam the countryside, like Godzilla. And he gobbles up everything he can. Not necessarily for anything, like money or power; mostly because he just can’t stop—it’s not in him.
Hancock’s style is especially annoying in his montages. Watch the McDonald bros show Kroc the speedy food preparation, or Kroc opening franchise after franchise across Illinois. It is in these passages that The Founder most closely resembles one of those corporate videos. Hancock just gets too precious and cutesy with them—despite the presence of the comically level Nick Offerman.
There is one thing that Hancock does brilliantly, however: sex. There are no sex scenes in the film, granted, but he handles sex the way that the best filmmakers did when the Hays Code stifled Hollywood. It’s the scene where Kroc has dinner with an investor, played by Patrick Wilson, and the man’s wife, played by Linda Cardinelli. She’s the one with the bright idea to replace cold ice cream with powder packets for milkshakes.
At first, Kroc is skeptical. Right in front of her husband—boy does Wilson play cucked beautifully—she gets a packet out and stirs it into her water, maintaining eye contact with Kroc. She offers him her milkshake, and he sips a bit, then a bit more, instantly pleased. She then takes the milkshake back and indulges in a ‘long, languorous sip,’ very precisely leaving her lipstick on the side of the glass. Hot damn; for a second, you might think you were watching lost footage from a Howard Hawks joint! (Truth be told, the casting is odd. There’s no way anyone could possibly leave Laura Dern for Linda Cardellini! It would never happen.)
Normally, I love films about characters who don’t change. When a movie takes a formidable, complex figure and follows him to his natural conclusion—as in The Master or The Revenant, for two recent ones—I’m transfixed. The problem is, despite Keaton’s best efforts, the character of Ray Kroc here isn’t especially complex. The Founder works as a partial examination of unchecked capitalism, but there ultimately wasn’t enough of that to hold my interest, which waned in places. I still recommend it, though, primarily for the cast.