REVIEW: 'The Founder' is an inoffensive but toothless biopic

 Michael Keaton stars as Ray Kroc in 'The Founder', directed by John Lee Hancock.

Michael Keaton stars as Ray Kroc in 'The Founder', directed by John Lee Hancock.

We're told many times throughout The Founder that the value of the McDonald's brand isn't in its food, but in the experience. The speed of service, the family-friendly atmosphere, the perception that everyone is eating at McDonald's, so you should, too. Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton) sees so much money in that experience that he wheels and deals and scrapes and grabs until he has complete control of a company that was once a homely family business.

So maybe it's fitting that watching The Founder isn't really about the movie or how it's made - just that someone decided to put value in Kroc's story, and we should feel something by experiencing it. It's a delivery mechanism for yet another story that promotes the American Dream, and so it's interchangeable with so many other movies. Swap the product, swap the names, and you could chart the expansion of any other corporate empire.

The film begins in an earnest enough way. Kroc is introduced as a milkshake machine salesman, who drives from drive-in to drive-in using the same rehearsed speech to convince owners that his machine will multiply their sales many times over. In these early scenes, the filmmakers do show off a sense of craft, especially in how they present the condition of the establishments Kroc is calling on. They are invariably run-down, with few customers and poor service. So naturally, when Kroc hears that a little outfit in San Bernardino wants to buy multiple milkshake machines, he books it over to Southern California and finds a gleaming paragon of clean family dining: the innovative hamburger stand run by Dick and Mac McDonald.

 Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch as Dick and Mac McDonald.

Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch as Dick and Mac McDonald.

Impressed with how Dick (Nick Offerman) and Mac (John Carroll Lynch) have choreographed every part of their service to get customers their orders within 30 seconds, Kroc has a brainwave. He pitches himself as the head franchisee of a Midwestern network of McDonald’s restaurants, and slowly but surely edges the brothers out of their own business.

But like a fast-food burger you bite into when you’re really hungry, The Founder seems great at first, only to become more uniform and uninspired as time goes by. The progression of Kroc’s takeover of the company follows all the usual steps that a “business movie” like The Social Network or The Wolf of Wall Street must: the protagonist comes up with an idea, chases the idea against all odds, and pulls off a last-minute win. Then he builds his business up, and has to deal with several third-act threats before ending the movie with a confident hold on the company. Watching The Founder, you can almost feel these components being added on, like the filmmakers were piecing together a Lego set and following the instructions to the letter.

Strip out the acknowledgements of Kroc’s less-than-savoury tactics, and you would have something like a corporate orientation video that McDonald’s staff need to watch when they’re hired. Granted, it would be a surprisingly well-performed video, as Keaton, Offerman, Lynch and the supporting cast (which includes Laura Dern, Linda Cardellini and B.J. Novak) all put in truthful, heartfelt work. However, the too-brief presence of Dern and Cardellini (as Kroc’s first and second wives, respectively) drags the movie down as well: it’s hard to believe that both women played such a passing part in Kroc’s life, and in reducing their roles The Founder feels even more like a paint-by-numbers page in the Glossy Hollywood Biopic Activity Book.

 Laura Dern as Ethel Kroc.

Laura Dern as Ethel Kroc.

Despite Kroc’s purported ruthlessness, the film lacks a real edge. Not that we need to see Kroc threatening people with violence or indulging in vices, but that the film wastes its opportunity to say something that critiques the McDonald’s company as we know it today. No mention is made of the effect of McDonald’s as one of the leading purveyors of unhealthy food, or of its status as the world’s second-largest employer (and its many underpaid employees). Or even how the McDonald brothers’ vision for a flawless ordering experience is now reaching a potentially frightening extent, with robotic kiosks cutting humans out of the equation and threatening to upset hundreds of thousands of jobs. Kroc is only seen in the slimy (but successful) context of building the brand, and is never taken to account for what his company did later.

Whether we’re talking movies or food, I like a little more natural flavour in what I consume. Movies like The Founder are serviceable and inoffensive, but the information you get from one could be found anywhere: a biography, a Wikipedia page, a magazine article. It left me bored enough at times that I was keeping track of when the movie hit the beats featured in the trailer - never a good sign. Films made on an assembly line may sustain you, but they don't quite nourish you.

The Founder gets two stars out of four.

What did you think of this tale of the McDonald’s invasion? Were you just looking to enjoy another Michael Keaton performance, or did the film make you feel like you just pulled a Morgan Spurlock? Join the discussion in the comments section, and if you liked this review, share it with your friends and followers!