What do we make of our corporate leaders as people? Names like Steve Jobs, Henry Ford and Walt Disney are embedded in the popular conscious as much as any kid wizard or snap-together playthings. Though we have access to the legacy of CEOs and leaders, many institutional heads are not as personally familiar as their product. We live in a time where tech titans are the subjects of top-billed films and non-tech icons may seem like an ancient generation.
The Founder is a straightforward biopic of an analogue man, an archetype of mid-century, middle American salesman, Ray Kroc. Kroc is introduced hocking milkshake mixers and scraping by on meager demand for his products when an unusually large order comes in from California. There, Kroc meets Maurice “Mac” McDonald and Richard “Dick” McDonald (John Carroll Lynch and Nick Offerman, respectively) brothers and the founders of a new assembly-line style restaurant that does away with car hops and barbeque trays for disposable packaging and made-to-order hamburger meals. Kroc smells real success in the McDonald’s revolutionary kitchen and he wants in. The brothers Mac reluctantly allow Kroc in and he quickly gets to work franchising the operation. The Founder presents Ray Kroc as the foundational understanding for chasing the American dream; every man is just one good idea (his own or another’s) away from striking rich. If Ray Kroc wasn’t the little-f founder of McDonald’s first burger shop, he was the capital-f Founder of the McDonald’s brand.
The Founder follows several blockbuster films about wildly successful company heads that have built their legacies on the work of others. It doesn’t dabble in David Fincher’s upstart backstabbing (The Social Network), nor in Danny Boyle’s confrontational schadenfreude (Steve Jobs). However, the Founder does marvel at its central ego. Robert Siegel’s script hovers over Ray’s marriage to Ethel Kroc (Laura Dern) like a buzzard. Dern’s Ethel offers one of the film’s best performances as the exhausted supporter of Keaton’s workaholic Ray. However, Ray’s relationship with future second-wife Joan Smith (Linda Cardellini) feels undercooked. It matters to his “persistence will pay off” megalomania that he discards his first marriage, but the squirrely middle-aged salesman doesn’t appear charismatic enough to charm the blonde bombshell presented within, considering her marriage to an already successful restauranteur Rollie (Patrick Wilson). Director John Lee Hancock uses Smith as the manifestation of Kroc’s growing success, framed in a red dress and topped with a golden coif (a vision of French-fries incarnate?) singing “Pennies from Heaven.”
Composed in un-ironic reverence, The Founder strings the business of building a fast-food empire together with Pabst Blue Ribbon beer, clutched baseballs, stuffed drive-ins and teen greasers. It rolls Kroc’s cornflower blue Plymouth right up against the line of tasteful nostalgia and uses red, white and gold to liven the screen. But the film’s nostalgia is as innocent as Kevin Arnold or Richie Cunningham. Between repeated cuts to American flags and church steeples, Kroc lays out a plan for McDonalds as a cultural staple, “the new American church”, and a gathering place for the hungry families “and we’re open on Sundays.” Don’t expect much cynicism or moral critique to balance; Kroc is simply an inevitability of capitalist enterprise.
The Founder is not built on redemption or destruction, but is instead focused on building an entertaining story in the singular drive of one man who took a good idea to greatness and the many people who were brought up and down along the way. It pleases and informs, but leaves moral certitude at the audience’s feet.