Directed by John Lee Hancock; screenplay by Robert Siegel
Starring Michael Keaton, Laura Dern, Nick Offerman, John Carrol Lynch, Linda Cardellini
Ray Kroc, a modest door-to-door salesman of milkshake machines, has spent all his life in pursuit of the brilliant idea that he could build an empire. After stumbling into the “express cooking” of the McDonald’s brothers he is confident that this time he is right. He convinces them to accept him as a franchise partner in order to spread the express burger preparation model across America. But little by little, with a number of gambles that threaten ruin (and ultimately cause his divorce from a wife who does not support him as much as he’d like), he ends up assuming full control of what will become the best known brand in the food industry.
The Founder is the story of an anti-hero, a “man without qualities” moved by ambition more than genius, capable of thinking big with an idea that does not belong to him. While building a brand that conquered America by focusing on the ideas of family and tradition, Ray Kroc himself embodies the opposite values, greed and ruthlessness, and these enable him to prevail over anyone.
What Ray calls perseverance is more aptly defined as the stubborn will to earn money and success. He longs for the feeling of solidity and reliability these would bring, but in the end is only able to replicate the appearance of them (as in a milkshake made with powder instead of ice cream, in order to save on refrigeration costs…). In a similar way Kroc looks for dependable married couples to start his franchise restaurants all around America, but then expects unquestionable support from his own wife without offering in return neither honesty or love.
There’s no hope for the original founders of the “express model”, two slightly nerdy brothers who, in a capitalistic America, represent the exception, dreaming of keeping control over the quality of their product and happy to grow slowly without always thinking about gain.
More than fascinating, the founder played with diabolical conviction by Micheal Keaton is unsettling and intimidating, with his knack for sweet talking, his promises and his granite stubbornness in pursuing what he wants.
His march towards greatness, not without obstacles or hardship, is nonetheless one of those journeys where success (planetary success, in this case) has a bitter taste, leaving behind the ruins of a marriage and the hope for a more human way to think about personal and business relationships in terms of honesty and trust.
A well crafted and well interpreted movie which, however, never lets us inside the mind and the heart of its protagonist, making it impossible to really get to know him. The result is a portrayal that is a bit cold and impersonal, quite predictable in its twists and turns and a little unexciting.
Luisa Cotta Ramosino is an Italian television writer and creative producer; she is also a regular contributor to the website Sentieri del cinema and Scegliere un film, an annual collection of film reviews.