Director: John Lee Hancock
Screenplay: Robert D. Siegel
Starring: Michael Keaton, Nick Offerman, John Carroll Lynch, Linda Cardellini, Patrick Wilson, B. J. Novak, Laura Dern
Runtime: 115 Minutes
John Lee Hancock has a solid history with the biopic, but after the success of the surprisingly tender Saving Mr. Banks, Hancock seems to have fallen back into the blueprint of the rags-to-riches biopic for The Founder; the story of how Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton) manipulated his way into becoming the creator and owner of the McDonald’s fast food chain – except without much of the creativity that made something like The Social Network excel beyond requirements.
If there’s some good to be taken from the film it’s that this is an interesting story of morally bankrupt duplicity being dealt to one of the world’s most recognisable brands. We see Ray Kroc work his way up from the lowly travelling salesman to the founder of the title through means of backstabbing and grubby deal making the only way a salesman can. He is hungry for the challenge and opportunity, but allows his infatuation with the business to quickly get the better of him without any cause for reflection.
His treatment of “Dick” (Nick Offerman) and “Mac” (John Carroll Lynch) McDonald – both of which are played with brilliant, doddering effectiveness – and their small town business is deplorable, to say the least, and were he not the focus he would unquestionably be identified as the villain. Regardless of alignment, Kroc is a terrible ageing narcissist who steals the world from underneath the brothers' feet, and only seems to take pride and value in the American dream as a means of inflating his own ego. Keaton does a really good job of towing that line of likability, but he feels like the right character in the wrong film.
Much of this comes down to the structure of Robert D. Siegel’s screenplay. Beyond its barebones template, it never finds a way to incorporate Kroc’s personal life into the structure of his business journey, and as such the dramatic conflict never manages to feel either satisfying or engaging enough to sustain much attention. Especially when the film pays what feels like lip service to the titles of passing individuals who will go on to further their careers in the company, but only warrant a basic acknowledgement of their names in single, out of step moments.
Whenever the film does decide that it wants to get involved with Kroc’s family and personal troubles, it either mishandles the conflict entirely through heavy moments of filler dialogue, or tears the audience away from the significantly more interesting elements of the business’ expansion. Keaton shares little chemistry with onscreen wife Laura Dern, who is relegated to the position of a stilted and unsatisfied housewife with little life of her own, and it’s only confused by his apparently blossoming relationship with Linda Cardellini’s business partner, although there’s little evidence to suggest why they would share a connection beyond her just being a little smarter than she appears.
Hancock’s direction is steady enough, and the film actually looks very nice at times thanks to the set designs and cinematography, but the editing and pacing are all over the place. Hancock cuts some dialogue scenes erratically in order to give the illusion of urgency yet in others just lets moments play out without any stress.
The Founder feels like an awards contender that just didn’t make the cut, and it’s easy to understand why. It just isn’t that remarkable overall as a picture, even given its unique real-life story and a few decent performances.