Ray Kroc’s story is a distinctly American one; it’s a tale of business success marked by corporate greed, dodgy backroom deals, and an overwhelming desire for sameness. Kroc was the salesman who took a small burger restaurant in San Bernardino, California, franchised it around the country, and turned it into the McDonald’s Corporation—and he only had to disrespect the wishes of the restaurant’s actual founders to do it. It’s a rather bleak rise to prosperity, but an interesting one nonetheless, since so much of Kroc’s skill at spreading McDonald’s around the country relied on his packaging of a fast-food restaurant as a plain, inoffensive monument to American family values.
Unfortunately, The Founder, John Lee Hancock’s new biopic about Kroc’s rise to power in the ’50s and ’60s, is as bland as the burgers the businessman hawked. The film had the chance to subvert the typical bootstrap tale of American triumph, but instead it plays right into that easy narrative, trying to celebrate his business acumen without skirting past his darker misdeeds. The Founder ends up feeling extremely wishy-washy, unable to scrub the nastiness of Kroc’s success but also incapable of confronting it. In the end, it feels too close to the movie you’d imagine Kroc approving of—not exactly a hagiography, but a Wikipedia entry in which all the controversial material is squeezed into one small section at the bottom.
Kroc is played by Michael Keaton as half-huckster, half-social climber—a try-hard salesman who has a roving eye for business opportunities, much to the despair of his wife Ethel (Laura Dern). When selling milkshake makers to a burger joint in California, Kroc is amazed by the efficiency of their operation, getting a tour from the eponymous McDonald brothers Dick (Nick Offerman) and Mac (John Carroll Lynch). Kroc’s genius, such as it is, mostly lies in understanding how easily the restaurant can be replicated. His riskiest pitch is to the brothers, to allow him to run their franchising operation.
There’s one scene early on that sums up the strange, slightly terrifying appeal of the McDonald brothers’ operation. Before setting up their restaurant, they draw its kitchen, in chalk, on a tennis court and have their employees mimic preparing the meals for customers, acting out each step (ketchup, pickles, fries, milkshakes) with perfect automation, in an eerie factory-floor dance. It’s beautiful, and it’s unsettling—a vision of America’s fast-food future where speed and efficiency will trump restaurant quality. Kroc hears about this and envisions a formula he can plug people into—but Hancock films the whole chalk-drawing scene with airy delight, a light, lilting score accompanying his overhead shots of the restaurant rehearsals.
The Founder’s script is by Robert D. Siegel, the former editor-in-chief of The Onion, whose previous films Big Fan and The Wrestler focused on the bleak lives of their subjects while never letting go of their core humanity. He never quite achieves this with Kroc—a man whose business canny is impossible to dismiss, but who otherwise is a bit of a blank slate, perhaps befitting a champion of mediocrity. He’s drawn to McDonald’s, as he tells Dick and Mac, because of the All-American quality of its name—free of the limiting gimmickry of a Burger King, easy to project one’s own values onto, a non-threatening place for families to congregate.
Hancock, in turn, has projected his own values onto Kroc, and has turned his subject into another of his dull biopic heroes. Hancock’s previous films include The Blind Side, The Rookie, and Saving Mr. Banks—“true-story” films about people who accomplished great things against all odds, works that declined to do anything more than celebrate their protagonists’ achievements. Hancock is a purveyor of easygoing Hollywood confections, which makes him an especially odd choice for Kroc’s story, the morals of which are anything but easygoing.
Kroc eventually pried the McDonald’s business away from its original founders, expanding it quickly around the country even as Dick, who designed the restaurant’s fast-food system, worried its quality would be diluted as the product got less and less centralized. Hancock plays their disputes like friendly disagreements—grumpy phone calls that eventually need to be sorted out by lawyers—and quickly skates by the more malicious aspects of the story, such as Kroc opening a McDonald’s franchise across the street from the original restaurant to put it out of business. The dissolution of Kroc’s marriage takes place off-screen, as does his affair with Joan (Linda Cardellini), the wife of franchise owner Rollie Smith (Patrick Wilson).
It’s hard to know what Hancock saw in Kroc outside of the roaring success of his business, and The Founder doesn’t give viewers more than that. What should be a terrifically complicated work ends up a neatly packaged, easily disposable piece of Oscar bait. It’s a thin gruel, best summed up by the milkshake substitute Kroc hits upon as a cost-cutting measure for his growing corporation. Just take water, add powdered milk, and stir: It looks like the real thing, and tastes near enough. The Founder is the fast-food dinner of biopics—20 minutes after you eat it, you’re already hungry again.