Director: John Lee Hancock
Cast: Michael Keaton, Nick Offerman, John Carroll Lynch, B.J. Novak, Laura Dern, Patrick Wilson, Linda Cardellini, Justin Randell Brooke, Kate Kneeland
Runtime: 1 hr 56 mins
Rating: PG13 (Brief Coarse Language)
Released By: Shaw
Opening Day: 9 February 2017
Synopsis: "The Founder" is a drama that tells the true story of how Ray Kroc, a salesman from Illinois, met Mac and Dick McDonald, who were running a burger operation in 1950s Southern California. Impressed by the brothers' speedy system of making the food at their San Bernardino hamburger stand and the crowds of patrons it attracted, Kroc immediately saw franchise potential and maneuvered himself into a position to be able to pull the company from the brothers and create a billion-dollar empire. And thus McDonald's was born.
When this reviewer first heard that the running time for this film would be close to two hours, his first thoughts were: could a story behind the humble, all-too-familiar McDonald’s brand really be interesting enough to be told for that long? Would the movie live up to the standards set by the recent spate of successful films that relate to the inception of trendier American brands such as Apple (Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs, 2015) and Facebook (David Fincher’s The Social Network, 2010)? Fortunately, these fears were unfounded. Directed by John Lee Hancock, The Founder proves to be an engrossing meditation on the man responsible for the expansion of the fast-food chain to unimaginable proportions and how it came to be the quintessentially American brand as we know it today.
The man in question is of course Ray Kroc (played by Michael Keaton), a small-time, middle-aged salesman of milkshake mixers who is completely awe-stricken by the assembly-line kitchen and fast food concept behind the eponymous burger joint originally set up by the McDonald brothers Dick (played by Nick Offerman) and Mac (played by John Carroll Lynch). We follow his journey keenly as he convinces the brothers to expand the reach of their operations through him, as he fervently seeks out and trains new franchisees. In the beginning, we root for Kroc as his wide-eyed enthusiasm for upholding the quality standards of the burger joints seems to jive with the vision that the brothers had for their burgers – produced with consistency, speed, quality.
However, as he realises the original deal inked with the brothers is financially untenable for himself and as his new business proposals repeatedly face resistance from them, he takes things into his own hands. Along the way, other characters such as financial whiz Harry Sonnebo (B.J. Novak) and a franchisee’s wife Joan Smith (Linda Cardellini) enter Kroc’s life and wind up as fortuitous aides in his convoluted journey to gain complete control of the McDonald’s brand. Towards the end of the film, in a final defining moment where Kroc and Dick McDonald share a private conversation in a washroom, audiences will come to the chilling realisation that Kroc’s intentions to wrangle the business from its original proprietors was never in doubt.
Apart from the gripping power struggle, several interesting facts about the history of the brand emerge that read like classic case studies for Business 101 class and offer substantial food for thought. For example, it may come as a surprise how recent the concept of fast food is and how instrumental McDonald’s was in changing consumer behaviour. Imagine this – queueing for your burgers and collecting them on the spot used to be virtually unheard of. And without giving away too many details about the film, there used to be a time when McDonald’s milkshakes were not made from what you’d imagine them to be (let’s just say it was related to cutting costs).
Still, without a doubt, the film’s strongest suit lies in its ensemble of leading men. Following the recent string of acting accolades garnered for films such as Birdman (2014) and Spotlight (2015), the momentum of Keaton’s career revival shows no sign of abating, as the consummate actor easily steals the show here. Riding the arc of the plot from indefatigable salesman to conniving mogul, he portrays Kroc with such nuance that audiences will go from admiration to disgust at the seeming decay of his scruples (or marvel at the shrewdness of his business acumen, depending on how you see it).
More unexpected but well worth noting is the performance of Nick Offerman, who is arguably better known for his achievements in comedy, most famously in the television sitcom Parks And Recreation. Here he subverts all expectations and is completely transformed as the serious Dick McDonald, losing his moustache and getting a buzz cut and glasses. He manages to lend ample gravitas to the role and is surprisingly compelling to watch as the uncompromising, highly-principled pioneering restauranteur.
And it’s not just the acting – even the overall storytelling and editing is ace. Scenes in the first half of the film are filled with deft cuts that lend a frenetic pace, egging us to cheer Kroc on in his zealous business endeavours; consequently, longer and more pensive shots in the second half underscore the increasingly sombre mood of the film. Carter Burwell’s understated score also goes hand in hand with the darkening of the film’s atmosphere as it progresses.
And to top it all off, the direction is laudable. A particularly nice touch is how the film starts with Kroc confidently rattling his sales spiel directly to the film’s audience (as if he is breaking the fourth wall), although it turns out he is just selling his milkshake mixers to a disinterested customer. At the end of the movie, Kroc, who has by now hit the big time, faces the audiences directly again, this time rehearsing before a mirror for his speech at an upcoming dinner hosted by the President. This time however, his eyes appear shifty and uncertain. It’s unclear however if his conscience is pricking him or if he feels like a little boy feeling inadequate in a huge pair of self-created shoes. The duality of the scenes manifests how things have come full-circle and is terrifically effective.
In short, the various elements of the film work remarkably well together to recount the story of a man who manages to achieve the American Dream in all its sordid glory; the antichrist who succeeds in making a fast-food restaurant chain the next American church. And as an afterthought, one realises that the film could not have been more aptly named – elegantly concise yet sardonically self-questioning. Who exactly is the founder then – the ones behind the original outlet, or the one who found it and brought it to the forefront of public consciousness? There are no easy answers. The next time you sink your teeth into that McDonald’s burger, you might just end up pondering that wee bit longer about its origins.
(There is a little-known story behind the rise of the McDonald’s empire and it’s not necessarily a feel-good one. But buoyed by solid storytelling and a more than competent cast, this is one biopic well worth your time)
Review by Tan Yong Chia Gabriel