.Review: ‘The Founder’

Great actors only serve to highlight a sub-par script in this period piece

‘The Founder’ chronicles the man who sold the world McDonald’s—Ray Kroc—played by Michael Keaton.

Director John Lee Hancock (The Alamo) has gone from Davy Crockett to Ray Kroc—arguably a lesser kind of American hero. Kroc was the burger baron who franchised McDonald’s from the original owners, a pair of idealistic restaurateurs from San Bernardino. The McDonalds’ “Spee-dee” assembly line method revolutionized the way Americans and a lot of the world eat. Making the Golden Arches an interstate phenomenon, Kroc created the fast food nation we live in today.

Exuding gall and desperation, Michael Keaton plays Kroc with a Midwestern honk to his voice and a never-ending line of patter. Watching him get a series of doors slammed in his face, and seeing him taking solace with a hip flask, it’s like Beetlejuice died and went to hell.

Keaton’s helmet-like forehead and barely repressed snarl suggests a deeper conception of Kroc’s climb than the movie allows. We’re supposed to grudgingly admire the nerve of the blinkered man, with his devotion to homilies. Alone in his motel room, Kroc listens to an LP of the “Press On” speech. Rah-rahing attributed to Calvin Coolidge, the speech hung on the wall in the Nixon White House.

Watching Kroc hustle ought to be compelling, but the way he’s presented, he’s kind of a grind—a square whose energies are so tunnel-visioned that we can never really respond to his innovations. The way it’s laid out, his post-war hustle is contrasted with the Depression-era burger joint operators. The McDonalds are played by John Carroll Lynch and Nick Offerman, the latter being the most authentic 1950s face in this period piece. They’re good cop and bad cop, respectively—Offerman having to take the hard line against Kroc’s increasingly high-handed decisions, up to the point where Kroc announces “Contracts are like hearts—they’re made to be broken.”

The heart Kroc breaks is Ethel (Laura Dern), Kroc’s first wife, left alone in an empty bed while her husband works his territory, plaintively hoping to be taken to dinner at the country club when he gets back home. You couldn’t ask for a better actor in the role than Dern. She looks right in the Eisenhower-era wardrobe, expressing ladylike anxiety with every gesture. Dern demonstrates something: an actor can be so much better than their part that all their effort only serves to reveal the thinness of the script.

Krock’s new love, Joan (played by Redwood City’s Linda Cardellini), gets to put a little heat into this picture, teasing Kroc over a glass of reconstituted milkshake, or sharing a duet of “Pennies from Heaven” at the piano as her current husband (Patrick Wilson) begins to worry a little. The hardworking Cardellini—who carries herself a bit like Maria Bello—deserves a bigger name, but it’s not clear if she’s terrific here, or almost the only face in this male, head-butting atmosphere. The movie is a symphony of false notes, with very little atmosphere of the times or the places. (Hancock’s 1950s San Bernardino is a tree-lined Midwestern paradise and racially harmonious, unlike that railroad town back in the day.)

The Founder buys Kroc’s patter about how America needed golden arches to knit it together. But the wishy-washy conception of this business giant makes it look as if McDonald’s corporate headquarters had approved every scene in Robert D. Siegel’s script. Given the tepid material, it’s odd how choice the soundtrack is. Carter Burwell overlays solo piano for the small town scenery. A Penguin Café Orchestra track is overlaid over the “burger ballet” Taylorism studies of the McDonalds employees in a mock restaurant floor plan, making phantom hamburgers in a model restaurant outlined in chalk on a tennis court.

The McDonalds’ system and personalities seem to lead more to In-N-Out Burger than the McDonald’s of today—granted, inexpensive food and good Wi-Fi—that keeps the poor from starving. There probably was a good movie in this story, but it’s not on screen. Those who have a bit of PTSD about the time they spent toiling at McDonald’s will shudder involuntarily every time they hear the mantra, “If you have time to lean, you have time to clean.” They, among all, will be hardest pressed to admire the ingenuity and persistence of the credit-grabbing hustler Kroc.

The Founder
PG-13, 115 Min.


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