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The Founder Movie Review

The Founder: Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD cover art
The Founder is now available on home video. Read our review of the Blu-ray combo pack.

The Founder (2016) movie poster The Founder

Theatrical Release: December 7, 2016 / Running Time: 115 Minutes / Rating: PG-13

Director: John Lee Hancock / Writer: Robert D. Siegel

Cast: Michael Keaton (Ray Kroc), Nick Offerman (Dick McDonald), John Carroll Lynch (Mac McDonald), Linda Cardellini (Joan Smith), B.J. Novak (Harry J. Sonneborn), Laura Dern (Ethel Kroc), Justin Randall Brooke (Fred Turner), Kate Kneeland (June Martino), Patrick Wilson (Rollie Smith), Griff Furst (Jim Zien), Wilbur Fitzgerald (Jerry Cullen), David de Vries (Jack Horford), Andrew Benator (Leonard Rosenblatt), Cara Mantella (Myra Rosenblatt)

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The Founder tells the story of Ray Kroc, who founded the first and biggest fast food empire, McDonald's. The film opens in 1954, when Kroc (Michael Keaton) is making passionate sales pitches to a drive-in owner for mixing machines that can make five milkshakes at the same time.
The traveling salesman is rebuffed repeatedly aside from one San Bernadino establishment that orders eight of the machines unseen.

Kroc takes a visit to that burger joint, which is run by brothers Mac (John Carroll Lynch) and Dick McDonald (Nick Offerman), and is blown away by both the speed of the service and the quality of the food. The McDonald brothers have expedited food ordering with a pared-down menu and efficient preparation system. The place is popular and filled with satisfied customers.

Kroc pitches an idea for the brothers to franchise their hot spot. They resist, having already tried that and failed. The siblings, who explain in detail to Kroc how their model evolved to its current state, are not interested in making money by letting their name get dragged down by subpar service in locations they can't personally oversee. But Kroc tells them to do it for America and somehow the McDonalds agree, with Kroc seeing to the launch of a number of the restaurants with Dick's distinctive golden arch design throughout the Midwest.

"The Founder" stars Michael Keaton as Ray Kroc who succeeds as "the founder" of McDonald's restaurants.

The working relationship between Kroc and the brothers is quickly and increasingly strained. He needs them to sign off on any changes he wishes to make. They bristle at most of his ideas (which aren't always really his) like making milkshakes from powder packets. To get the business going, Kroc has to secretly mortgage his home, which distresses his wife (Laura Dern) when she later learns about it. He also faces resistance from banks, until an eavesdropping businessman (B.J. Novak) shows him how to get more than a measly percentage of the bottom line by shifting his business from restaurants to real estate.

Kroc is shrewd and uncompromising. He sets his sights on the piano-playing wife (a blonde Linda Cardellini) of a Minnesota restaurateur (Patrick Wilson) and we know it's only a matter of time before he'll be with her. (The powdered milkshakes are actually her idea.) He drives the McDonald brothers crazy with his real estate maneuever and tries to smooth things over with a blank check delivered to a hospital bed and later a buyout with a handshake promise to royalties in perpetuity.

Written by Robert D. Siegel (The Wrestler) and directed by John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side, Saving Mr. Banks), The Founder initially feels like a history lesson. This is the story of McDonald's and the man who changed eating as we know it. It's heavy on exposition, delving into the specifics of which makes the model successful. It almost feels like something McDonald's themselves would make.

Letting Ray Kroc franchise their business model is a decision that brothers Mac (John Carroll Lynch) and Dick McDonald (Nick Offerman) come to regret.

Eventually, our perception of the film changes as Kroc evolves from a struggling but persistent salesman into something of a conniving maniac. Power and success go to his head and all else, from his wife to courtesy to common sense, fall into the background. The corporation that features to some degree in the diets of so much of the world wasn't so much founded by a go-getter, but was essentially taken from two brothers by someone who took credit for everything.
As a clip of the real Kroc in the end credits illustrates, Kroc liked the name "McDonald's", but was willing to part with everything else in the interest of advancing the business, especially the brothers who for most of the film feature in telephone calls in which Kroc violently hangs up on them.

Hancock is not someone you expect the most prestigious of films from. The Blind Side is probably the worst film nominated for Best Picture this century and that was his biggest success. The Founder is often pedestrian and it's no fault of the committed cast, whom Keaton leads with the gusto and vigor you expect. Flash is not in Hancock's vocabulary, though the film at least does an admirable job of recreating a time and place, succeeding in that regard better than Hancock's previous film, the otherwise superior Saving Mr. Banks, did.

Though it is opening pretty much everywhere in January, The Founder is not a January movie in the negative sense. It had an awards-qualifying run in early December, albeit one that was almost altogether fruitless. (Needless to say, Keaton won't extend his streak to three consecutive Best Picture Oscar winners.) It is an indie film from a commercial, mainstream director that is opening surprisingly wide in a little over 1,000 theaters. It will probably falter with moviegoers, even though it is serviceable and well-made. As far as biopics go, there are much safer and more predictable ones than this. There is depth and darkness to this film that take their time to surface and belie the bright and sunny visuals.

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Reviewed January 20, 2017.

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