The Founder (The Weinstein Company, PG-13)

The experience of watching it is similar to eating a McDonald’s hamburger.

Thanks largely to the vision and hard work of Ray Kroc, McDonald’s is one of the most successful fast food companies in the world, with outlets in over 100 countries. Kroc’s  accomplishments are celebrated in John Lee Hancock’s The Founder, which so predictably hits every biopic beat that the experience of watching it is similar to eating a McDonald’s hamburger—you know exactly what you’re going to get before you start, it’s pleasant enough without being either great nor terrible, and you’ll probably forget about it soon after consuming it.

When we first meet Kroc (Michael Keaton), it’s 1954, and he’s on the road hawking a device that can make five milkshakes at once. He’s as hard-working as they come, but no one is buying his well-rehearsed pitch. Except, that is, for one restaurant in California, which wants eight of them. Kroc decides to drive out there and see what kind of a restaurant could be selling so many milkshakes and discovers the original McDonald’s, run by the eponymous brothers Dick (Nick Offerman) and Mac (John Carroll Lynch). Kroc finds both their food and service to be far superior to what he’s experienced at other drive-ins and is even more impressed after a tour of the kitchen and an explanation of their system, which allows them to deliver fresh, high-quality food to customers almost as soon as they have placed their order.

You might say that the McDonald brothers brought the industrial model to fast food, with each employee assigned one task and the kitchen laid out for optimal efficiency. Uniformity is another key to their operation—for instance, each burger gets exactly two pickles and five dollops of ketchup, the latter delivered by a device they built themselves—and they’ve also introduced efficiency measures like doing away with dishes and cutlery and having people walk up to a counter to place their orders. The brothers are happy running one successful restaurant, but Kroc immediately sees the potential for an empire and, after some effort, sells them on franchising their name and system of production.

Robert Siegel’s script presents Kroc as pure ambition, the kind of person who simply must be successful at something and will stop at nothing to achieve it. The McDonald brothers, in contrast, are proud of the quality of the food they serve and believe in normal human decency. You know these ethical systems are going to come into conflict, and you can also guess who wins—not only because the history of McDonald’s is well known, but also because good and decent seldom beats out slick and heartless. It’s mildly interesting watching these conflicts play out, although The Founder wimps out by trying to have it both ways, presenting Kroc’s misdeeds and heartlessness but also favoring his story so much that you have basically no choice but to cheer his victories.

The Founder stays relentlessly on the surface of its story, giving us all externals and action without a shred of insight. That may be a fair reflection of Kroc’s character, but it does not make for a compelling movie. As the brothers drop out of the story and Kroc’s successes begin to multiply, the film becomes more and more a celebration of McDonald’s and its founder, and more generally of winning at any cost. Given this approach, it’s no surprise that the film gives no consideration to the environmental or health costs of McDonald’s food or of the role it played in homogenizing food cultures, both in America and around the world (driving the original McDonald’s, run by two brother, out of business is presented as a positive).

Keaton is perversely magnetic as Kroc, and Linda Cardellini makes a strong impression in the limited screen time allowed her as Joan Smith, his second wife. Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch deliver fine, understated performances as the McDonald brothers, while Laura Dern should get a special award at Oscar time for doing her best in an entirely thankless role as Kroc’s first wife Ethel.

The Founder looks great, thanks to the apt use of historical locations combined with lovingly recreated period details (car-hops on roller skates, Route 66 signs), and Georgia and New Mexico ably stand in for a variety of Midwestern and Western locations. The problem is that director John Lee Hancock never makes a compelling case for why this particular story needed to be told, and all the production values in the world can’t solve that problem. | Sarah Boslaugh

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