There was a time when a burger, french fries, and bottle of soda from McDonald’s had an asking price of 35 cents. The restaurant, which has ballooned into an international chain since 1953, began as a tiny shack in San Bernardino. Customers would come to open windows, dictate their orders to a teenager, and, within seconds, exit with their food in hand.
John Lee Hancock’s The Founder, the 115-minute movie that opens tomorrow in theaters, begins at this point in American history. It centers on Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton), the Illinois man best known today for purchasing McDonald's from its original owners and becoming the chain's franchisee. At the film's beginning, Kroc is a fifty-year-old salesman who’s shilling other people's shitty inventions to buyers who don't bite, mostly small restaurants across the country. In this process, he meets the chummy McDonald brothers (John Carroll Lynch and Nick Offerman), proprietors of the eponymous fast-food joint. The pair is one of the few to express interest in the product Kroc's selling (in this case, it's a Prince Castle-brand milkshake machine made of tin). Kroc is utterly transfixed by the origin story of McDonald's, which the brothers relay to Kroc over a five-minute dinner conversation.
Kroc offers to help them sustain and grow their business. He has visions so grand for McDonald's that he begins to proselytize like the Elmer Gantry of fast food. “Franchise, franchise, franchise!” he exclaims one day in a parking lot to the brothers, convincing them to add his name to the contract with an eye on national expansion. He delivers his elevator pitches with sermonic fervor. His philosophy? McDonald’s can be the new American church.
Kroc slowly encroaches upon the brothers’ territory as he builds this operation into a chain. He strips the brothers of ownership of the very property they began. Keaton’s slimy, loosey-goosey style of performing lends itself well to this particular role: In this film, we bear witness to Kroc's transformation from an easily pitiable failure of a man to a titan of his own greed.
The charge of Keaton's work is dampened by the film that surrounds it. As a director, Hancock, who directed The Blind Side (2009) and Saving Mr. Banks (2013) before this, lacks a sense of rhythm that’s enough to sustain interest in this narrative of one man's ravenous appetite for capital. The Founder follows a ploddingly episodic template: Kroc hits one roadblock, stumbles for a bit, and eventually overcomes. When he's pitching the franchise to prospective clients, there are moments when the baggage of Kroc’s past entrepreneurial failures seem to risk haunting him, but they soon subside. Hancock fails to intersperse the film's early scenes with a nuance that could foreground what’s to come, to give the blow of Kroc’s monstrous eleventh-hour reinvention that much more weight.
This is to say little of the film's unimaginative rendering of food. I’m not sure I’ve seen a movie that’s ostensibly about food whose aesthetic expresses such a profound disinterest in food. The film’s early scenes resemble a clunkily romantic McDonald’s ad campaign, with slow-motion shots of cheery families biting into burgers and frames of patties dolloped with ketchup and mustard. These shots are meant to represent the pure, aspirational culinary ideals that McDonald's was originally founded on before Kroc poisoned the franchise. Yet these shots feel clinical and efficient, first drafts of failed advertisements for a restaurant that no longer exists.
By the film's last scenes, Kroc has become a capitalist Godzilla, uncaring of the souls he’s knowingly stepped over. The conclusion may make you radically reconsider what came before it, because it seems that Hancock had inadvertently stumbled upon a message—don't be a corporate asshole—after flailing his way toward charting this everyman's ascent to stardom. By the film's end, the plight of these brothers, who didn’t see a cent of the profits they were promised via an unofficial handshake agreement with Kroc, lingers. How exactly this franchise so swiftly fell out of these brothers’ hands, and to a man motivated by such egotistical intentions, merits more rigorous treatment. It's a story still waiting to be told.
The Founder opens in theaters on January 20th in the United States.