The Founder wants to be something perfectly reasonable: a neutral portrait of a singular businessman. Ray Kroc, played as an excitable, mildly unscrupulous weasel by Michael Keaton, was neither genius nor innovator. He didn’t invent the “Speedee Service System” that made McDonald’s a success, the golden arches that made it distinct, or the franchise model that made it ubiquitous. As The Founder tells it, Kroc succeeded mainly by being an incorrigible grasper and an unapologetic pest. He’s the unspoken parenthetical to Woody Allen’s “half of life is showing up” (even when everyone wishes you’d stop coming).
This is a challenge for the film, not because telling this story is an insane idea, but because it doesn’t fall into the many categories of biopic we’ve been conditioned to expect. Kroc is neither aspirational figure nor cautionary tale. There’s no teary moment where he makes good and no cathartic Rosebud moment where he realizes he’s wasted his life. The Founder isn’t preaching the gospel of innovation, the asshole-genius of the Steve Jobs/Thomas Edison mold, nor is Ray Kroc the underdog hero, the iconoclast challenging orthodoxy — although the film teases these interpretations at various times.
No, Keaton’s Kroc is more like Richard Nixon, an obsessively ambitious striver driven by envy for the Kennedies of the world, those carefree fools who lucked into wealth and effortless charm while the Nixons and Krocs sweat into cheap suits trying to sell enough elevator buttons to pay the rent. He’s an underdog you want to root for, until you realize his path to success is paved with ruthlessness, unapologetic backstabbing, and generally strangling any romantic notions you might have had about the world.
That’s the difficulty of The Founder. Should I be happy about this petty tyrant using his one last shot at redemption to screw over the principled, innovative, McDonald brothers (played charmingly by Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch)? Certainly, some people in the audience were, cheering when Kroc finally figured out how to cut the McDonalds out of their own company and take their name. And self-help types will almost certainly read Kroc’s ruthlessness (his mantra is that the world is full of idle geniuses and innovators but it’s persistence that wins the day) as a blueprint for their own success, no matter how inherently broken and ultimately unfulfilled he’s intended to be. But I can’t really hold that against the filmmakers here. There’s no wealth porn montage in The Founder, and very few scenes that a rational person would read as “this too can be yours for the small price of your soul!” If anything it stresses the emptiness of it even as Keaton remains oddly likable.
Ray Kroc loves his Canadian Club and eventually commits adultery, but he’s no Jordan Belfort. He doesn’t do much midget tossing, coke snorting, or Lamborghini crashing, which is the other tough thing about The Founder: It offers naked ambition, unadorned with debauchery. He’s not even particularly vindictive, the kind of guy who screws you over with a shrug. Nothing personal, old chap. Fortune favors the pitiless.
It’s interesting that The Founder was directed by John Lee Hancock, previously of feel-good fare like The Rookie and The Blind Side (which nicely papered over the Tooeys’ ulterior motives in adopting Michael Oher to tell a heartwarming tale of aspirational race relations in America), because The Founder is almost exclusively about the flip side of American exceptionalism. It’s not the America of hard work and opportunity and principles, it’s the one of relentless, almost pointless acquisition, where squatters’ rights and finders keepers rules the day, where everyone is out to f*ck you unless you f*ck first. You know that Cadillac commercial Bill Maher hates? The Founder is a lot like that, only without the open cheerleading and cocksure protagonist. Ray Kroc is sort of an obnoxious weasel, and knows it.
That Kroc constantly drapes himself in the flag (he sells the McDonalds on franchising by explaining that every small town in America has a courthouse and a church, the flag and the cross, to which he wants to add the Golden Arches, the “new American church”) and gets compared to Henry Ford is enough to make you queasy about the entire idea of American exceptionalism (and personally I don’t think either the rah-rah view nor the self-flagellating one are especially true, they’re just opposite sides of the same narcissistic self-regard coin). And I’m not averse to reading The Founder as this intensely compelling, studiously uncathartic slow-burn horror film.
It’s just that sometimes you get lost in the clichés, even if you suspect they’re being used ironically. Like when Ray Kroc woos Joan (Linda Cardellini) during a late night phone call: “You think big, don’t you.”
“Is there any other way?”
Ditto the end credits, with “Spirit in the Sky” playing over the traditional biopic montage of stock footage and period photographs celebrating (ironically?) the real Ray Kroc. The epilogue text also tells us about McDonald’s “feeding 1.9% of the world’s population every day” and Joan Kroc’s billion dollar donations to NPR and the Salvation Army after Ray’s death, alongside less heroic facts about Kroc screwing over the McDonald brothers.