(The Founder, 2017)
McDonald’s biopic both satisfying and nauseating.
By Katie Ray
Following the successes of Spotlight (2015) and Birdman (2014), it has now become familiar to see Michael Keaton starring in films that concern themselves with determination and self-image. However, John Lee Hancock’s latest release, The Founder, pushes this quasi-assumable expectation of Keaton into a new light. A biopic depicting the story of global fast-food chain McDonald’s, Hancock and Siegel serve up a gritty and honest exposé of Ray Kroc (Keaton), the salesman responsible for the cross-country expansion of McDonald’s restaurants. Overall a strangely entertaining watch, The Founder uses an under-told story to raise questions of whether a good film necessarily demands a fuzzy feeling or a likable protagonist. While advertised as an appetising and healthy watch, like a McDonald’s meal, the film itself slightly alters expectation upon viewing and leaves you feeling, quite frankly, a bit sick.
The film is set in America during the 1950s and introduces Ray Kroc, a travelling milkshake-mixer salesman who is clearly born to sell, but is still searching for a product to be truly passionate about. His prayers are answered when he comes across Dick and Mac McDonald’s burger restaurant, which operates under a revolutionary production-line system that produces orders in just 30 seconds. The brothers favour quality over profit in every aspect of their business, and share their fairytale-esque story of achieving this American dream before being swiftly pushed into a franchise agreement with Ray. McDonald’s restaurants proceed to open across the country, but not without emerging legal and moral ambiguities along the way.
While remaining largely entertaining and generally fast-paced throughout, the film also manages to maintain a dirty-feeling undertone that manifests itself through Ray Kroc’s characterisation. Hancock and Siegel’s cinematic journey progresses successfully where we are initially led to sympathise with Ray and admire his mantra of “persistence” (adopted by listening to motivational speeches in dingy hotel rooms), before understanding almost allegorically that persistence is not always a morally successful approach. Dick McDonald’s remark, “There’s a wolf in the henhouse – we let him in”, rings true in both narrative and literal senses, as Kroc himself stars as the “founder” here, as oppose to the brothers he exploits. An intruder motivated by profit and personal success, Keaton’s Ray naturally commands the majority of the screen time with his insistent attitude pushing other cast members aside. Laura Dern’s brief appearance as Ray’s underappreciated wife, Ethel, certainly puts this into perspective: a character devoted to supporting her husband but who can barely be acknowledged as a supporting actress because of the nature of Ray’s character.
As the world’s second-largest private employer that feeds 1% of the global population everyday, and with an extensive history of charity work and donations, it is difficult to judge both the film and the McDonald’s empire after learning its origin story. The Founder can be understood both as an inspirational film about the power of ambition, while also being a film about the danger of persistence. Though potentially divisive in nature, it is certainly a strangely (and unpredictably) applicable film for the times. Off the back of a Donald Trump inauguration, Ray Kroc – a businessman with a fortune in real estate, a gift for the gab, and an enthusiast for quick-fixes – feels all too familiar in character. Portrayed in The Founder with a consistently stomach-churning grin, a tangerine tan, and a convincing argument of “do it for America”; Ray’s “Business is war” statement gathers a sinister weight, especially given the sheer number of McDonald’s restaurants we know to have infiltrated every corner of major cities all over the world.
Regardless of politics, The Founder remains an interesting and compelling storytelling exercise about a company in the background of everyday life whether through restaurants or advertising. It is a weirdly enjoyable one, and definitely worth a watch to see if it suits your taste.