The story of the real McDonald’s brothers and how door-to-door salesman Ray Kroc creatively swindled them out of their rightful share of the McDonald’s franchise fortune is the focus of “The Founder,” a fascinating true tale about the building of an American fast food empire. What starts off as a retro-looking commercial celebrating McDonald’s later takes a darker turn with the realization that Ray Croc (Michael Keaton), while a savvy businessman, wasn’t a very nice person. In fact, he was a first class jerk.
Kroc was a nasty yet shrewd hustler, a man with a “me first” business sense that helped him steal and build a worldwide brand. It’s not that Kroc was particularly smart, but he was a savvy, cutthroat, persistent opportunist who paid attention to those around him and had no qualms about stepping on the little guy if it could work in his best interest. He’s the man you love to hate, but can you really blame him for recognizing an easy opportunity and seizing on it? If nothing else, this film serves as a warning of what not to do when you’re making business deals. Kroc cheated the McDonald’s brothers (enjoyable performances from both Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch) out of their “handshake deal” to give them 1% of all sales (in what would amount to $100 million per year). As tasty as those crispy fries are, knowing the background story leaves a bad taste in your mouth.
And that’s where this movie really fails — in its contradictions. At first it’s a love fest for the fast food restaurant but then morphs into something different: “Yay, McDonald’s!” turns to “Boo, McDonald’s!” At first it left me craving a burger but by the end, it made me feel like boycotting the restaurant forever. It’s not exactly a comedy but it’s not exactly a drama either.
The McDonald’s franchise story is interesting and one that is extremely important to the history of American business, but the movie overall comes across as far too bland and pedestrian. As is a problem with most biopics, the actors are laser focused on getting the mannerisms of their real-life counterparts so perfect that they become trapped within their roles, becoming a restrained impersonator rather than a gusty performer. Keaton sleepwalks through the role to the point where it feels like he’s doing a cheap imitation of Croc rather than something new and interesting.
While I didn’t love the film, it’s well crafted, well photographed, and well written in a clear, concise and straightforward way. But with such a compelling story, I just wish it had been so much more.