There's a reason I watch so much "Oscar Bait." Every once in awhile, one of these also-ran titles that everyone else wrote off will turn out to be a nice surprise. "The Founder," which follows the rise of a down-on-his-luck salesman, Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton) to the head of one of the most successful American businesses that ever existed, is that movie today.
The origin of the McDonald's fast food chain is not a subject I've ever given much thought to, but the possibilities are immediately intriguing. McDonald's is, after all, one of the most famous and ubiquitous American brands, inextricable from the popular culture and the modern American landscape. I'd imagined from this outset that "The Founder" would be a feel-good Horatio Alger story, about creative entrepreneurship and dogged persistence leading Kroc to his American dream. And it is, up to a certain point. And then things take a wonderfully complicated turn.
We first meet Ray trying to hawk milkshake blenders in the midwest, always on the road, with little time for his patient wife Ethel (Laura Dern). Then one day he comes across the original McDonald's hamburger stand, run by brothers Dick and Mac McDonald (Nick Offerman, John Carroll Lynch), using a wildly successful efficiency system. Ray makes a deal with them to franchise McDonalds, but is constantly hampered by the brothers' stringent guidelines and distaste for a bigger, more commercialized vision of what McDonald's could be. As the number of restaurants grows, it becomes a battle of wills between Ray and the brothers over the fate of the company.
There are obvious comparisons to be made between "The Founder" and "The Social Network," and maybe even "There Will Be Blood." "The Founder" isn't on the same level as far as the filmmaking is concerned, despite the best efforts of director John Lee Hancock. However, this is a great film for Michael Keaton, who turns in a great performance as Ray Kroc. McDonald's surely wouldn't have become the success that it did without his foresight, ambition, and hard work. However, it also required his cut-throat nature, ruthlessness, and greed. I love that just when the film gets the audience rooting for Ray, the dark side of his nature starts becoming more apparent, and we realize what he's capable of doing to get what he wants.
As a result, "The Founder" turns out to be a fantastically effective portrait of American success at its most morally bankrupt, reminding us that most of the great business empire-builders like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs got where they were by often being absolutely horrible to their friends and competitors alike. Kroc's ability to stay so warm and amiable while being so heartless is fascinating to observe. The scripting is great here, especially the parts of the story that it decides to leave out. We don't see a lot of the wrongdoing up close, allowing us to stay in the insulated bubble of Ray's ego. It's only in the final, closing moments of the film that some of the worst consequences of his behavior are confirmed.
The production is lovingly nostalgic, presenting '50s and '60s Americana in colorful, eye-catching ways. And it's a lot of fun to see the old style McDonald's restaurants and equipment, and the McDonald brothers' story of how they figured out how to build the perfect burger kitchen is delightful. Everyone knows McDonald's and its branding, after all, and the film isn't shy about using this to its advantage. It's only the excellent score, by Carter Burwell, that introduces a feeling of uneasiness early on, suggesting that the story isn't going to be as pleasant as it seems.
"The Founder" wound up with the Weinstein Company for distribution, and I'm never sure what their logic is in pushing one film over another at awards time. "The Founder" was benched this year in favor of other titles, which is a shame, because I found it to be one of the most timely films of the year, and haven't been able to stop thinking about it. It has its flaws - Ray Kroc's relationship with his wife feels mishandled and truncated - but it's good to see more complex, troubling stories like this being told.