Reviews

What Next, Frozen French Fries? 'The Founder' and McDonald's Origin Story

Michael Keaton in The Founder (2016)

For this surprisingly hard-edged biopic on the businessman behind McDonald's, Michael Keaton unfurls the black flag of unrepentant capitalism.


The Founder

Director: John Lee Hancock
Cast: Michael Keaton, Nick Offerman, John Carroll Lynch, Linda Cardellini, B.J. Novak, Laura Dern, Justin Randell Brooke, Kate Kneeland, Patrick Wilson
Rated: PG-13
Studio: Weinstein Company
Year: 2016
US date: 2017-02-17 (General release)
Website
Trailer

Sometimes a hamburger isn’t just a hamburger. Consider how many Americans still hold primal memories of wolfing down a Big Mac with fries as a child, or the fact that the Soviet Union only seemed truly dead and gone after a McDonald’s opened in Moscow in 1990. A phenomenon in many ways, McDonald's has inspired backlashes against its cookie-cutter business model, which churned out super-sized, saturated-fat obesity time bombs in the wake of exposés like Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation. It has also served "billions". As the visionary Ray Kroc puts it in The Founder, "McDonald’s can be the new American church.”

John Lee Hancock’s biopic introduces Kroc (Michael Keaton) in 1954 as a 52-year-old salesman tiredly hustling milkshake mixing machines to drive-up burger stands around the Midwest. He has a wife, Ethel (Laura Dern), back in a Chicago suburb whom he never sees. He also has a deep hunger to succeed. At what, he doesn’t know. Listening to inspirational records in motel rooms at night -- those Dale Carnegie-type messages with their chin-up Calvinist rigor that were so popular in go-go postwar America -- he feels assured that with "perseverance" anybody can do anything.

When Kroc hears that a burger joint out in San Bernardino wants six of his machines, he assumes it’s a mistake. Then he drives out there. The moment he lays eyes on the original McDonald’s, run by Mac (John Carroll Lynch) and Dick McDonald (Nick Offerman), it’s as if he's been struck with a vision on the road to Damascus.

The brothers happily explain their revolutionary business model. Henry Ford-like standardization in the kitchen sends a burger from the grill to a customer in 30 seconds. Paper packaging means no dishes to wash. They've cut out the car hops zooming around on roller skates taking orders and people in the cars waiting for food. Everybody just walks up, places their order, and walks away with their food in a matter of seconds.

They've eliminated jukeboxes and places to hang out, so they've cut back on the teenage hooligans (it was the ‘50s, after all). Instead of the fast-food Gehenna so commonly associated with McDonald’s now, the brothers’ original vision looks bright, sunny, fun, and quirky, its serpentine lines of customers anticipating the faithful who, decades later, assembling outside Shake Shacks.

Indeed, Kroc’s face lights up as though he’s discovered gold. He instantly intuits that one could franchise this model -- with its high turnover, delicious fries, and distinctive golden arches -- all around a rapidly suburbanizing nation. The brothers reluctantly agree to his plan. That’s where the problems arise. The McDonalds are happy to try the franchise thing, but really, they just want to run a burger stand they can be proud of. The brothers are small businessmen; Kroc, for all his talk about family and Americana populism, is a pirate. “If my competitor were drowning,” he declares. “I’d walk over and put a hose in his mouth.”

Robert D. Siegel’s script doesn’t position Kroc as any kind of visionary. He’s a happy workaholic who can’t see the light go out in his wife’s eyes and freely admits that nothing will ever satisfy him. Kroc is the guy who will keep firing away at a problem until it’s solved or he’s dead and buried. Keaton plays him as another of his nervy and slightly predatory neurotics, all teeth and squint. It’s a captivating performance, particularly placed in opposition to Lynch and Offerman’s more laid back characters.

Glossily shot and speedy in pace, The Founder shares some of the problems that were present in Hancock’s Saving Mr. Banks. That film’s portrayal of Walt Disney, another great Midwestern standardizer and seller of sentimentality -- who, incidentally, met Kroc while both were serving in World War I -- was somewhat less dark than this one’s take on Kroc. But both films ultimately didn’t know what to do with their protagonists.

As The Founder moves into its later stretches, a certain lassitude sets in. As Kroc is busy taking credit for all of the McDonalds’ creations, they cluelessly slave away back in San Bernardino, telling each other -- and sometimes Kroc, during phone calls routinely ending in angry hang-ups -- that they mean to uphold their standards. When Kroc hints at saving money by using instant milkshake mix instead of real ice cream, they erupt in horror and ask whether next he’ll be asking to sell frozen French fries.

The building tensions create a creepy sort of spectacle, as we watch Kroc circle his prey and amass his empire. But it’s too clear what's coming, at least to anyone who's driven an American highway during the past half century. “Ambition!” Kroc shouts. “That’s the stuff of life.” But it isn’t always enough stuff for engaging drama.

6


Music


Books


Film


Television


Recent
Film

Buridan's Ass and the Problem of Free Will in John Sturges' 'The Great Escape'

Escape in John Sturge's The Great Escape is a tactical mission, a way to remain in the war despite having been taken out of it. Free Will is complicated.

Books

The Redemption of Elton John's 'Blue Moves'

Once reviled as bloated and pretentious, Elton John's 1976 album Blue Moves, is one of his masterpieces, argues author Matthew Restall in the latest installment of the 33 1/3 series.

Music

Whitney Take a Master Class on 'Candid'

Although covers albums are usually signs of trouble, Whitney's Candid is a surprisingly inspired release, with a song selection that's eclectic and often obscure.

Music

King Buzzo Continues His Reign with 'Gift of Sacrifice'

King Buzzo's collaboration with Mr. Bungle/Fantômas bassist Trevor Dunn expands the sound of Buzz Osborne's solo oeuvre on Gift of Sacrifice.

Music

Jim O'Rourke's Experimental 'Shutting Down Here' Is Big on Technique

Jim O'Rourke's Shutting Down Here is a fine piece of experimental music with a sure hand leading the way. But it's not pushing this music forward with the same propensity as Luc Ferrari or Derek Bailey.

Music

Laraaji Returns to His First Instrument for 'Sun Piano'

The ability to help the listener achieve a certain elevation is something Laraaji can do, at least to some degree, no matter the instrument.

Music

Kristin Hersh Discusses Her Gutsy New Throwing Muses Album

Kristin Hersh thinks influences are a crutch, and chops are a barrier between artists and their truest expressions. We talk about life, music, the pandemic, dissociation, and the energy that courses not from her but through her when she's at her best.

Music

The 10 Best Fleetwood Mac Solo Albums

Fleetwood Mac are the rare group that feature both a fine discography and a successful series of solo LPs from their many members. Here are ten examples of the latter.

Music

Jamila Woods' "SULA (Paperback)" and Creative Ancestry and Self-Love in the Age of "List" Activism

In Jamila Woods' latest single "SULA (Paperback)", Toni Morrison and her 1973 novel of the same name are not static literary phenomena. They are an artist and artwork as galvanizing and alive as Woods herself.

Film

The Erotic Disruption of the Self in Paul Schrader's 'The Comfort of Strangers'

Paul Schrader's The Comfort of Strangers presents the discomfiting encounter with another —someone like you—and yet entirely unlike you, mysterious to you, unknown and unknowable.

Music

'Can You Spell Urusei Yatsura' Is a Much Needed Burst of Hopefulness in a Desultory Summer

A new compilation online pulls together a generous helping of B-side action from a band deserving of remembrance, Scotland's Urusei Yatsura.

Music

Jess Cornelius Creates Tautly Constructed Snapshots of Life

Former Teeth & Tongue singer-songwriter Jess Cornelius' Distance is an enrapturing collection of punchy garage-rock, delicate folk, and arty synthpop anthems which examine liminal spaces between us.

Books

Sikoryak's 'Constitution Illustrated' Pays Homage to Comics and the Constitution

R. Sikoryak's satirical pairings of comics characters with famous and infamous American historical figures breathes new and sometimes uncomfortable life into the United States' most living document.

Music

South African Folk Master Vusi Mahlasela Honors Home on 'Shebeen Queen'

South African folk master Vusi Mahlasela pays tribute to his home and family with township music on live album, Shebeen Queen.

Music

Planningtorock Is Queering Sound, Challenging Binaries, and Making Infectious Dance Music

Planningtorock emphasizes "queering sound and vision". The music industry has its hierarchies of style, of equipment, of identities. For Jam Rostron, queering music means taking those conventions and deliberately manipulating and subverting them.

Music

'History Gets Ahead of the Story' for Jazz's Cosgrove, Medeski, and Lederer

Jazz drummer Jeff Cosgrove leads brilliant organ player John Medeski and multi-reed master Jeff Lederer through a revelatory recording of songs by William Parker and some just-as-good originals.

Books

A Fresh Look at Free Will and Determinism in Terry Gilliam's '12 Monkeys'

Susanne Kord gets to the heart of the philosophical issues in Terry Gilliam's 1995 time-travel dystopia, 12 Monkeys.

Music

The Devonns' Debut Is a Love Letter to Chicago Soul

Chicago's the Devonns pay tribute the soul heritage of their city with enough personality to not sound just like a replica.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.