Most of the plot points that unfold in the Hollywood biopic The Founder are readily available on the internet. In the 1940s, McDonald’s was a simple burger joint run by the brothers Richard and Maurice McDonald in San Bernardino, California, until it was refashioned into a global behemoth by visionary salesman Ray Kroc.
The Founder imagines Kroc (Michael Keaton) as a hero who shows the brothers Richard (Nick Offerman) and Maurice (John Caroll Lynch) the way. Despite the script’s limitations, John Lee Hancock’s film is held together by Keaton’s central performance as a down-on-his-luck salesman who wrests control away from the McDonald brothers and divorces his wife Ethel (Laura Dern) for a restaurant owner’s wife, Joan Smith (Linda Cardellini). Kroc becomes progressively more unlikable, but Keaton remains riveting.
The minutiae of the fast food business is explained and then extolled. At times, the film resembles a deftly made piece of advertising, with an end scroll helpfully telling audiences that McDonald’s feeds 1% of the world’s population every day. The resemblance to a corporate video becomes complete when actual footage from the McDonald’s archives is used to depict the corporation’s global march.
Over the years, through books and documentaries such as Fast Food Nation and Super Size Me and Banksy’s iconic artwork, McDonald’s has come to embody everything that is wrong with global capitalism. One doesn’t expect Hancock’s biopic to engage with these critiques since the events in the film take place before these revelations. But knowing what we do, can we sit straight-faced through a sexually loaded sequence in which Joan lovingly espouses the virtues of Insta-Mix, a powder milkshake mix that will cut costs by half? Or the sequence in which a salesman explains to Kroc how the mechanics of fast food work and why you don’t need plates: “It’s all disposable. Eat it and throw it out.” The fast food culture that McDonald’s has come to embody remains off the menu throughout The Founder.