Is the McDonald's Mogul a Hero or a Villain? 'The Founder' Fails to Assert Itself

Michael Keaton in the lead role is the most enjoyable aspect of 'The Founder,' which traces the dubious beginnings of the McDonald’s empire.

Michael Keaton in 'The Founder.'
Daniel McFadden via Lev Cinema

As I’ve noted previously, many current films, American and otherwise, are based on real-life stories, including biographies. I have tried to understand the reasons for the phenomenon and noted the limitations of this form of filmmaking. Is it that the very words “based on true events” are supposed to imbue the film with an inherent degree of seriousness, because historical truth is considered to possess greater gravitas than an invented story? Is the idea to make the audience sit up and take notice, because it is about to be confronted with something that actually happened?

Or does the phenomenon reflect a breakdown of the creative imagination? And, by the same token, is this the reason that I am automatically well-disposed toward films based on fine, original screenplays (as, currently, in “Manchester by the Sea” or “La La Land”)?

The phenomenon is not new, of course. The history of cinema is replete with biopics and true-life stories, even if in some cases any resemblance to the historical truth was purely coincidental. Additionally, many of the best works in motion picture history have been based on a literary or theatrical source.

This is not a spurious comparison: I treat movies based on a true-life event in the same way I do those that originate in a book or play. In both cases, there is a form of text to which the film refers. I find unsatisfactory those films that copy a literary original to the screen in a purely illustrative mode, without the source being rewritten for the cinema. And I also object to movies that present a true-life story if that story is not vested with a distinctive cinematic character and an interpretative heft that plays up its relevance and justifies its transposition to the screen.

“The Founder,” currently in wide release in Israel, does not fail completely in this regard, but it still shows the limitations of the “based on true events” cinematic phenomenon. The previous two pictures by the director, John Lee Hancock, were also inspired by true stories: “The Blind Side” (2009), which received exaggerated critical praise and won its star, Sandra Bullock, an Oscar; and “Saving Mr. Banks” (2013), which avoided almost any criticism of Walt Disney, one of the film’s two protagonists.

Hancock’s new movie tries to cast the story of its protagonist in an ironic light and to insert satiric elements about the fraudulent character of the capitalist system. However, the feeling the viewer is left with is that the director and his screenwriter, Robert D. Siegel, didn’t know exactly where they were going with their film. “The Founder” hesitates between taking a critical stance toward the protagonist and treating him with esteem, even admiration. This hesitancy blurs the picture and results in a work which, though enjoyable from many points of view, suffers from the absence of a conceptual or emotional focus.

It’s hard to imagine what the movie would have been without Michael Keaton in the lead role; his performance actualizes everything the movie aspired to do but failed to achieve. Much of the viewer’s pleasure in watching the film, with all its limitations, is due to his presence. Keaton, whose screen persona projects craftiness tempered by a modicum of accessible humanity – and, as such, doesn’t prevent us from liking him – plays Ray Kroc, a traveling salesman in the American Midwest of the 1950s. His product is milkshake mixers, which he tries, not very successfully, to sell to restaurants. This is only one of his failed projects. Not even his habit of listening to self-empowerment and self-help records in the hotel rooms he stays in, can make Kroc, who is no longer young, into someone likely to fulfill the American dream of success.

A stolen idea

All that changes when Kroc gets an order for six mixers from just one restaurant – a bonanza for him. His curiosity piqued, he goes to San Bernardino, California to see the place, which turns out to be a hamburger joint run by two affable brothers, Mac (John Carroll Lynch) and Dick (Nick Offerman) McDonald. They have come up with a revolutionary method of dispensing hamburgers, which they call the “speedy system.” There’s no need to wait a long while in the car for a waitress on roller skates to bring your order, as was often the case in restaurants in the United States at the time – an irritating experience that Ray has often endured. Instead, at McDonald’s you go to a window, order a hamburger and a milkshake, and you get them within a minute, neatly wrapped.

Impressed, Ray persuades the nave brothers to grant him a franchise for similar outlets. The two are like Monsieur Jourdain in Moliere’s play “The Bourgeois Gentleman,” who didn’t know he’d been speaking prose all his life: They didn’t know they had invented fast food. Ray will open a series of restaurants across America, also to be called “McDonald’s,” complete with the golden arches that Mac and Dick have placed on the roof of their establishment to make it stand out.

Gradually, Ray not only steals their basic idea, but also excludes them from the McDonald’s empire he creates, particularly when a financial adviser tells him that the real profits lie not in the sale of hamburgers, but in purchasing the land on which the many branches stand. The film’s ironic intent is suggested in its very title, which points to Ray Kroc as the person who founded the empire. But what did Ray actually found, compared to Mac and Dick who conceived the original idea?

The film meticulously depicts the chain of stratagems Ray employs to take over McDonald’s, and his insistence that every branch follow the procedures introduced by Mac and Dick. It’s mainly here that the movie’s duality in its treatment of Ray as a hero is revealed, as someone who knows how to take advantage of what the capitalist system offers him, and as a conman.

This uncovering of the inner workings of Ray’s business activity is sometimes a bit wearisome but has its amusing side. It’s also interwoven with a depiction of Ray’s private life. He abandons his wife, Ethel (Laura Dern), who suffered acutely during her marriage to Ray before his sudden success, in favor of a younger, more glamorous woman (Linda Cardellini), the wife of one of Ray’s franchisees (Patrick Wilson). She too has a head for business, and it is she, to the horror of Mac and Dick, who are unable to oppose Ray, who suggests that instead of ice cream and milk, the milkshakes at McDonald’s will be made of vanilla- or chocolate-flavored powder.

This could have been a far more trenchant film than the one Hancock gives us. As he refrained from touching Walt Disney’s image in “Saving Mr. Banks” – that had some justification, as the Disney company produced the movie – in “The Founder” he avoids any criticism of McDonald’s itself, which will undoubtedly come as a disappointment to Israel’s minister of health. Also missing in the movie is a broader, challenging context. What remains, then, is the story. If the filmmakers had treated it with greater depth, it might have turned out, for example, to be of considerable relevance for the present period. Without these elements, “The Founder” offers a reasonable viewing experience and no more.