Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton) is an ageing businessman struggling to sell his milkshake machines. When he visits the small McDonald’s family restaurant, run by brothers Mac (John Carroll Lynch) and Dick McDonald (Nick Offerman), he sees a chance for success at last.
Ray Kroc built an empire that spans the globe, under one of the most recognisable symbols in the world. But he also built a myth reflected in this biopic’s title. Kroc was not the founder of McDonald’s, though he worked hard to create the perception that he was. And John Lee Hancock’s biopic charts his course, in a story that entwines capitalist triumph and moral decay.
If anything, this story of a businessman who manipulates other people to his own benefit may be a little too timely.
As we meet him, Ray (Michael Keaton) is a struggling salesman. He travels the US, pitching himself to overworked diner owners and listening to motivational records each night in lonely hotel rooms while his wife Ethel (Laura Dern) waits, equally lonely, at home. But while most diners reject his multiple-milkshake machines, one small Californian joint orders eight. Ray, intrigued, drives out to visit and finds a revolutionary fast food system that enchants him. McDonald’s is a family restaurant, not a hang-out for bobby-soxers and teddy boys, staffed by professional, engaged staff. Its blue-collar owners Mac (John Carroll Lynch) and Dick McDonald (Nick Offerman) have spent years perfecting their system, but have no interest in franchising the concept due to Mac’s poor health.
But Ray has a vision for their restaurant, and cannot be deterred by mere reluctance. He is a man possessed, and he wins over the McDonald brothers, his bank and even Ethel. She offers unstinting support despite her hopes that Ray might opt for quiet retirement rather than a new venture. Ray’s drive, however, only grows — and soon he sees anyone who cautions him as an enemy. He makes new friends, like Patrick Wilson’s restaurateur and his wife Joan (Linda Cardellini), and tightens his grip on the McDonald’s name and product. The result is sometimes blackly funny; Dick’s horror at the idea of commercialising the McDonald’s name is tragicomic to modern ears.
Keaton never pauses to grasp at likeability as Ray’s star rises, playing the salesman desperate for one perfect success to the hilt. He’s clearly sincere in his pursuit of his vision, but that sincerity leads him to deceit and cruelty. It’s a delicate performance that the film can’t quite match. Hancock (Saving Mr. Banks, The Blind Side) spends too long investing in a traditional biopic account of Ray’s success, his all-American pursuit of a dream that often seems impossible to realise.
Yet the film pays sometimes perfunctory tribute to those abandoned as collateral damage in Ray’s wake. Only the McDonald brothers are given anything near their due. Humanised beautifully by Offerman and Lynch, the pair are inspired in their restaurant design but limited in their business imagination. They invite the tiger into their house, show him around the kitchen and are slowly devoured. Ray Kroc’s American Dream became their nightmare. The Founder is a story about a lie running around the world while the truth wonders who stole its boots, but it has a surprising amount of sympathy for the lie.
If anything, this story of a businessman who manipulates other people to his own benefit may be a little too timely. While the film has substance with its slickness, it tastes a little over-produced.