By Aaron Rourke (Melbourne, Australia)

 

Based on a fascinating true story, The Founder is a production that is hamstrung from the very beginning. Restricted in its ability to tell its potent tale because of rigid legal instructions, the resultant feature could very well be compared to takeaway food itself; briefly affecting, but lacking true nourishment and long-term satisfaction.

Set in 1954, we are immediately introduced to Ray Croc (Michael Keaton) and his selling mantra, told to us directly to camera. Persistence is the key to success, according to Ray, and he will definitely display this particular tribute throughout the movie. On the road most of the time, trying to sell multi-milkshake makers to numerous diners with little success, Ray is baffled when he is told that one outlet wants to by six of them. Travelling to San Bernardino, California, where the source of the order came from, Ray witnesses what seems to be a revolutionary approach to the fast food industry. Two brothers, Dick and Mac McDonald (Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch), are able to prepare customers’ burger orders in thirty seconds, which are then placed in disposable bags so people can eat wherever they want to, whether it be on a park bench or in their car.

The brothers give Ray a tour of their establishment, and he is absolutely transfixed by the business’ precise and efficient assembly process. Wanting to be a part of it, Ray strongly suggests to the McDonald brothers that they should franchise nationwide, but they are hesitant, as a previous attempt to do just that proved disastrous. Not taking no for an answer, Ray eventually strikes a strict deal with Dick and Mac, and while it initially looks like it may lead to a fruitful expansion of the McDonalds name, Ray’s obsession with success and wealth will lead to a growingly bitter dispute where the brothers will be fighting to hang on to the family venture they created.

The Founder should be far more impactful than what it is, offering a real-life story that could have provided the perfect doorway to examine and explore the dark underbelly of the American Dream and material success. Unfortunately, as stated earlier, due to imposed legal constraints, this look at the ugly side of human nature is almost totally ignored. In fact, for most of the film’s running time, Ray is presented as a dedicated business man who just wants to succeed; a little over-zealous perhaps, but simply endeavouring to live the dream. Only towards the end of the film do we get a glimpse of the real Ray Croc, but by then it is too little too late.

The lack of genuine insight and texture into Ray’s character blurs his treatment of other people, whether it be his wife Ethel (Laura Dern), the McDonald brothers, or Rollie (Patrick Wilson), a prominent restaurant owner who wants to invest in what he believes is Ray’s creation, and it undercuts what the film should be truly saying about his, and in a sense corporate, behaviour. The McDonalds brand is carefully presented as a family-friendly wonderland, and the scene where Dick talks about their personal history and eventual set-up of the burger stand, feels more like an overly expositional infomercial for shareholders rather than a natural introduction to two human beings.

The screenplay by Robert Siegel (who wrote the terrific The Wrestler) lays down the basic nuts-and-bolts about what happened, but the savage irony is disappointingly absent, and not wanting to offend anyone who may still be alive, makes sure that every supporting player is kept vague and under-developed. This leaves a strong cast floundering, who are never able to sink their teeth into anything substantial. Dern (Blue Velvet, Rambling Rose, Inland Empire) is completely wasted as Ray’s long-suffering wife, Offerman (Parks And Recreation TV series) and Lynch (Zodiac, Gran Torino, Shutter Island) can only do so much with characters who appear and disappear with infuriating regularity, while the forever under-utilised Linda Cardellini (Super, Scooby Doo, Freaks And Geeks TV series) is once more given little to do.

Michael Keaton, a supremely talented actor who has made something of a comeback in the last couple of years (he was outstanding in the rather over-rated Birdman), gives a committed performance as Ray, but the flimsy nature of the script narrows the character’s range right from the start, so while convincing he is lamentably one-note. When you see how good Keaton was in dramatic outings such as Clean and Sober (1988), Pacific Heights (1990), and of course the Oscar-winning Spotlight, it makes the hollow part given to him here all the more frustrating. The ruthless, relentless nature of Ray should remind you of characters like Chuck Tatum, memorably played by Kirk Douglas in Billy Wilder’s iconic Ace in the Hole (1951), a role that perfectly encapsulated the ‘success-at-any-cost’ mentality.

Keeping the movie innocuous and toothless is director John Lee Hancock, who smothers the dark story with a breezy, comfortable atmosphere that is totally at odds with the sour subject being presented on screen. Like his formulaic, inconsequential handling of The Blind Side, Hancock demonstrates once more that he has no idea how to confront or challenge an audience. You feel he should be helming lightweight flicks such as Miss Congeniality or Why Him?, rather than potentially worthy productions like this.

The Founder, despite its boundless potential to intrigue, enthral, and enlighten, is a profound let-down, unable to strip bare the viciousness that can overwhelm those who want to achieve nothing more than huge financial success, no matter how many lives are hurt and destroyed in the process. For a more powerful look at the way people treat each other in a specific corporate world, I highly recommend the 2005 documentary McLibel, directed by Franny Armstrong (The Age of Stupid) and Ken Loach (I, Daniel Blake), and is far more hard-hitting than this.

Rating: 2/5

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