The Founder is the antithesis of a feel-good movie. It’ll leave you with a bitter aftertaste, not to mention second thoughts about grabbing a burger at McDonald’s. On the surface, the movie has a similar vibe to The Social Network (about the founder of Facebook) and Steve Jobs (about the co-founder of Apple). All three focus on the origin stories of iconic companies and the people who got trampled – or simply left behind – as the brands took off. But The Founder (about the “founder” of McDonald’s) is missing a few key ingredients – namely drama, tension, and the development of characters that you may want to care about. The cast is good. The movie is weak.
Here’s the gist: Michael Keaton (Spotlight, Birdman) plays Ray Kroc, the fast-food visionary who apparently built his empire – and fortune – on the backs of brothers Dick and Mac McDonald (Nick Offerman, John Caroll Lynch). As the story goes, Kroc was a struggling milkshake-machine salesman in the 1950s when the McDonald brothers placed an unusually large order for their roadside burger stand in San Bernardino, California. Kroc went to San Bernardino to check the place out, and saw the potential for a chain of franchises across the nation. The brothers were reluctant to branch out too far too quickly, for fear of losing quality control. But Kroc convinced the brothers to join forces – then gradually forced them out.
Kroc starts off as a likeable enough guy, but he becomes less and less likeable as he gets more and more successful. He turns into a grade-A jerk, professionally and personally. Among other things, he ditches his long-suffering wife Ethel (an underutilized Laura Dern) for another woman, the wife of one of his franchise owners. I wish I could say that was a spoiler alert, but the movie hits you over the head with the foreshadowing of that particular sub-plot.
The Founder is at its most interesting and entertaining when the McDonald brothers are in the picture, which isn’t nearly enough. In the end, there’s little doubt that the McDonald’s we know today would not exist without Kroc’s persistence, chutzpah and drive. But it sucks that the McDonald brothers got royally screwed. Will I still stop at McD’s for fries and a bathroom break while on a roadtrip through the middle of nowhere? Yeah, I probably will. But then again, I’m feeling inclined to skip the fries, at least until I’ve had a chance to fully digest The Founder and what it says about the American dream and the lengths some people are willing to go to achieve it.