The Founder Review

“The Founder” tells the story of McDonald’s Corporation founder Ray Kroc, the salesman and idea-chaser who turned two humble brothers’ speedy burger concept into the biggest restaurant chain in the world. But Kroc isn’t actually the most interesting part of his own movie.

Kroc may be the focal point — and Michael Keaton the perfect fit — but the global familiarity of McDonald’s makes the story of this ubiquitous and all-powerful company’s humble beginnings the real captivating watch. Kroc’s somewhat manipulative and ruthless takeover of the business and choice to cast its narrative in his favor is merely a supporting role and an interesting part of that story.

A milkshake machine salesman in the Chicago suburbs, Kroc discovered Dick and Mac McDonald’s (Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch) fast and efficient burger operation in San Bernardino, California. In the 1950s, burger joints were drive-ins that attracted a less desirable, loitering teenage crowd. So not only was McDonald’s delivering the same or better quality food faster, but also its to-go system attracted families and working people. Kroc saw immediate potential and convinced the brothers to let him franchise out the restaurants back in the Midwest. Eventually, their partnership became two separate business entities, and the forward-thinking Kroc found that if he wanted to achieve greatness, he needed to squeeze them out.

Robert Siegel’s script presents this story in compelling, almost documentary-like fashion. Rarely is exposition so meaningful in a movie, let alone a vital piece of its entertainment value, and Siegel gets that. The narrative literally takes a break while we eat up the history of McDonald’s. And a lot of what director John Lee Hancock (“The Blind Side,” “Saving Mr. Banks”) provides is visual exposition. One whole sequence early on is just the brothers telling Kroc their story. Cinematically basic, but a joy to watch.

What “The Founder” lacks, however, is a willingness to tackle its story and main character’s moral complexity. We sense and taste it as we watch this man, whose gumption we admire at the beginning, turn his back on the little guy, but the film doesn’t access and confront these layers the way great dramas do. Instead, we’re left feeling uncertain what to make of Kroc and how to feel when the dust settles.

In general, both Siegel and Hancock struggle with subtext. What’s happening on the surface of “The Founder” is so engaging and well-crafted, but moments that reveal character or deal with relationships between characters are either missing, inefficient or even heavy-handed. Scenes between Kroc and his wife, Ethel (Laura Dern), pop in and out to communicate the level of tension between them rather then presenting them in a way that we can burrow into their experiences and understand them. On the opposite end of that spectrum, when Joan Smith (Linda Cardellini) enters the picture as the alluring wife of one of Kroc’s franchisees, she’s playing piano and wearing a bright red dress to complement her bright gold hair. Picture that for a second. Yes, perhaps a little much.

Yet there’s a wholesomeness to “The Founder” that’s not that far off to the wholesomeness and nostalgia of McDonald’s back in the days before fast food became vilified by nutritional science and the scapegoat of upper-middle class frustrations with health and obesity. Anyone who was a child between the ’50s and ’90s probably has some fond memories of McDonald’s, and the movie effectively taps into that. If you don’t fall into that category, then you at least feel good about acquiring a more intimate understanding of the food service industry’s biggest titan and the clever and pleasant ways “The Founder” depicts those facts and stories.


3.5/5 Stars


The Founder
Directed by John Lee Hancock
Written by Robert D. Siegel
Starring: Michael Keaton, Nick Offerman, John Carroll Lynch, Laura Dern


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