Detailing the ascension of the largest fast food corporation in the world, The Founder is a solid biopic that resists glamorisation and sentimentality, well composed Rockwellian cinematography notwithstanding.
When the eponymous and amoral founder Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton) proclaims, practically taunting one of the honest brothers Dick McDonald (Nick Offerman), who actually created the company, "McDonalds. It's a great name. It sounds like...America" there is no other way to read it other than a barbed jab at the idea of the 'Land of Opportunity'.
More like the Land of Opportunism, you can practically hear the film sneer. It's a great line in a not that great film. For one, its narrative is too steady, never straying far from its set course that unravels predictably even to those not familiar with the story. For two, the emotions are a little too subdued, as if the film were wary of the audience caring for its characters outside of a mild historical interest. But its unwillingness to hide its rotten heart is admirable and demonstrates a straight-shooter sensibility that honours the real-life story. And though the whole cast is terrific, it is Michael Keaton who, once again, stuns and delights.
Ray Kroc is a struggling milkshake salesman who is frustrated by incompetent diner restauranteurs and a supportive wife (Laura Dern) whose greed doesn't come close to matching his own. He receives word of a small burger joint that sells delicious hamburgers at an unheard of fast rate. It's McDonalds, of course. Knowing McDonalds today as the gaudy mass-peddler of phony food that looks the same in Hong Kong as it does in Anytown USA, one of The Founder's few genuine charms is in showcasing a McDonalds that's a lone beacon of innovation, with machines that allowed for efficiency, but were not yet advanced enough to supplant human creativity and hard work. And the workers in the kitchen are no dead-eyed wage slaves; they produce burgers, fries, and cool drinks with the kind of grace and elegance of a well-choreographed dance routine.
The brains behind the operation are brothers Dick and Mac McDonald (Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch), doughy and far too benign, they are no match for the weasel-like, shark-minded Ray Kroc, who greets the brothers with a devious smile and big ideas about franchising, which threatens to kill the integrity of the business the brothers worked so hard for.
Throughout The Founder, I couldn't help but be reminded of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, another dynamic duo who created a similar American eternal moneymaker in Superman. Shuster died alone in a cheap Californian rest resort and Siegel worked as a grocery bagman well into his 70s. The brothers of The Founder face a similarly unkind fate. Fresh young creative meat being gobbled up by the machine god of Capitalism is nothing new, of course. But when Dick McDonald, appalled, tells Ray Kroc they're not going to replace genuine milkshakes with his satchels of cheap instant "Just Add Water" milkshake, it's almost enough to make you want to weep. For his naivety, for his steadfast integrity, and for what would become of his and his brother's creation.