In The Founder, Michael Keaton plays Ray Kroc, the “founder” of McDonalds; he was, as the movie spells out, not at all the founder of the franchise and this cynical title might make you expect that the movie is going to be a pretty grim character study. And the main problem the film has it that it simply can’t decide whether it’s about the “founder” or THE FOUNDER! After watching the movie, I discovered that the movie is based on both Kroc’s autobiography and an unofficial biography by someone else and that kind of says it all. There are plenty of moments where we’re supposed to really despise Kroc and his predatory, unflinching dishonesty; at other times though, we’re supposed to genuinely see him as an inspirational figure that encapsulates the American dream. There’s a fine hook here if the film really wants to explore the inconsistencies of the man, but that’s not what’s going on here. Kroc here isn’t a layered character, he’s a poorly written one and the film isn’t conflicted about him, it’s just downright confused. The film is never subtle and, while this isn’t a complaint, it does make the tone changes really obvious and jarring. Every time Kroc starts waxing philosophical about America and opportunity, the music swells epically behind him and there’s not a hint of irony; then a few minutes later, he’s doing a handshake deal with a guy, knowing full well that he’s going to pretend it never happened and cheat the guy out of millions of dollars. The music is dark and brooding and Keaton is doing his best despicable con-artist. The film is actually very good when it allows Keaton to go dark in that way; it’s just more in Keaton’s wheelhouse and he isn’t really able to stick the landing on the inspirational moments, though those moments are very poorly written so it’s not entirely his fault. It’s a shame because there’s absolutely a great movie here, but this isn’t it. When this movie is good, it can be downright great. Nick Offerman and John Caroll Lynch are on hand as the naïve McDonald brothers and they’re both absolutely brilliant; revelatory really. I’ve liked both of them a lot before, but their performances here are just wonderful. Lynch’s performance in his final scene is a masterpiece and Offerman is every bit as good. The brothers could easily come off as idiots or clowns, but Offerman and Lynch give them real humanity. Ultimately, I guess, it’s their story that works here. It’s the story of a slick con-artist preying on the ambitions of some decent folks and destroying them. At the end of the day, this film works best, not as a story about Kroc’s journey to success, but as a story about the McDonald brothers’ journey to losing everything. In this way, the film absolutely feels right of the moment; this movie serves as something of a powerful indictment of the American dream when it focuses on the McDonald brothers. When it tries to sell itself as an inspiring story of the American dream with Kroc’s story, it feels absolutely false and annoying. There’s more good than bad here for sure, but the film really gets distasteful when it lionizes Kroc and his loathsome behavior and the idea to include a lot of material about Kroc’s personal life/marriage/affairs was a bad decision and not even Laura Dern as Kroc’s longsuffering first wife can do anything with her character, so horribly written is it. It’s a shame. This could have been a masterpiece; instead we get a film with a lot of good stuff in it, but a fair amount of really awful stuff as well. Still, worth a watch. 3 stars.
tl;dr – film can’t decide whether to despise or lionize its main character; when it’s clear-eyed and dark, the film is great, but it becomes distasteful when it makes a hero out of him. 3 stars.