It’s not that “The Founder” is bad necessarily, it’s that there’s no real reason why it had to be a movie. Nothing about the film’s presentation, the way it delivers its story, justifies it being made as a narrative feature film. Nothing, that is, besides the desire of its studio and producers to make easy money from it’s based-on-a-true-story premise, star power, and connection to the world’s most famous restaurant chain, elements that its intended audience will no doubt devour like a Big Mac. The irony is, this capitalist motivation for the films creation contradicts the films ostensibly anti-capitalist message. Does this inherent hypocrisy make “The Founder” a film unworthy of being seen? Maybe, depending on your principles. In any case, the film is unfortunately too mediocre and uninteresting to care much about the answer.
Starting in 1954, Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton) is a struggling travelling salesman of Milkshake Mixers, who one day receives an order for 6 units of the wildly unpopular product he’s hustling. Surprised, he decides to take a trip to San Bernadino, California to the restaurant that placed the order. There he finds a small restaurant called McDonald’s, founded by brothers Dick (Nick Offerman, wonderfully understated and perhaps the films best performance) and Mac McDonald (John Carroll Lynch). Impressed by the restaurants efficiency, popularity and family friendly atmosphere, Kroc convinces the brothers to franchise the small establishment, with Kroc heading the expansion and the brothers having approval over how each restaurant is run.
It’s no spoiler to reveal that McDonald’s becomes a fast-food empire, and Kroc becomes a very wealthy man by repeatedly screwing over nearly everyone in his orbit, including the brothers, his wife, Ethel (Laura Dern) and his franchisees. With its critique of greed and how American capitalism encourages it, and its portrait of petualnt, success obsessed masculinity, it’s a bit like the television series “Breaking Bad,” just replace blue meth with cheeseburgers and get rid of the gruesome violence and crime thriller elements.
But “The Founder” lacks much of what makes “Bad” and other notable films and fiction of a similar vein: quality craft, in this case writing and direction. “Bad” had writing and plotting that are amongst the best any visual medium had seen. Most of Robert D. Seigel’s script for “The Founder” is exposition, recounting facts, dates, names and the intricacies of business and burger preparation with dull dutifulness. And it’s direction, by John Lee Hancock, follows suit.
Interestingly, looking at almost any given shot of both, “Bad” feels more like a movie, whereas “The Founder” feels more like a TV show, its bland close-ups and flat medium shots serving as nothing more than script illustration. When I said earlier that the film doesn’t justify its own existence, I mean that the story could have been told in much the same way, with the same emotions provoked, and the same ideas addressed in a one-hour TV documentary on the founding of McDonald’s, the kind you’re likely to see on PBS, The History Channel, or in a 7th-grade American History class on a day when the teacher is hungover. It doesn’t have the gumption, ambition, or creativity to try to plumb the psychological depths of its characters or to ponder what this story might say about America and the way it does business. It’s nothing more than information, acted out by famous people.