The Founder Review

There's probably a correlation between how strongly a viewer reacts to the man at the center of The Founder and the overall opinion of the movie. If you skew extremely negative about Ray Kroc then it might be more difficult to find much to like in what director John Lee Hancock and screenwriter Robert Spiegel have brought to the screen. But if you recognize the grey and become intrigued by Kroc's motivations then it's easy enough to find the film a fascinating story of postwar America and the flourishing of capitalism via commerce. As played by Michael Keaton, Kroc is wonderfully divisive. It's tough to argue with the idea that he took total advantage of a fortuitous situation, but the question then arises as to whether he should have.

The film begins in 1954 with Kroc hauling his milkshake machine out of the trunk of his car around to drive-in restaurants in the midwest. The machine seems pretty good but the problem for these modest restaurants is its necessity or lack thereof - who needs to make five milkshakes at the same time? As Kroc intermittently sees his quiet, mostly repressed wife (Laura Dern, who does a lot with very little), the bills pile up and the orders just aren't there. When he unexpectedly gets an order for six of these contraptions Kroc assumes it's a mistake and wants to know who's his new customer. He places a call, learns the customer actually needs eight, and immediately realizes he needs to travel cross-country to see what kind of place could possibly use so many of his machines.  This is how Ray Kroc becomes acquainted with the McDonald brothers of southern California, eventually resulting in the birth of a new era of food consumption.

One can see the novelty in showing a man, past middle age, with modest success and significant failure behind him becoming a very wealthy man while establishing an empire that is probably as impactful as any single American corporate entity ever. But that's not really what The Founder does. It's a hero-less look at divergent interests. If history is typically written by the winners, this is the version that gives equal time to the losers. The pull here is that Kroc upends the McDonald brothers (who are played with loving perfection by Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch), but, to some extent, it's only because they allow him to do so. Maybe they're too nice for their own good, or maybe it's survival of the fittest.

While the film never even flirts with the idea of letting Kroc off cleanly it also resists portraying him as the obvious antagonist. He's the lead in the picture! The McDonald brothers willingly invite him into their Swiss watch-like kitchen and relay their entire story over dinner, in a phenomenal sequence. When Kroc wants to franchise their idea they even relent, despite not wanting to compromise standards or being terribly interested in the financial rewards. So, while there's no way they could have envisioned their little burger and fries place having the massive cultural impact it has, the McDonalds nonetheless allowed the expansion to occur. The scale couldn't have been anticipated, but the business model wasn't exactly stolen outright.

The Founder is fascinating both in its function as historical background on McDonald's and as an unconventional biopic that intentionally lacks several of the usual elements of the genre. The motivations behind Ray Kroc's actions in this film are generally left unexplored. We know he possesses ambition. We know he's looking for success. But we don't know why he lacks generosity towards the McDonald brothers. We don't know why he simultaneously respects their commitment to specific processes but then goes and undermines them by substituting ice cream with powder in the milkshakes. It could be purely economic, sure, but that wouldn't explain the early insistence on, for example, keeping two pickles per hamburger.

In many ways, this film is the best possible version of the story it tells. There are numerous opportunities for wrong turns and The Founder seems to avoid each one. It does struggle to gain resonance on the whole, but the immediate positive reaction is owed to a strong cast able to bring to life a well-considered script. If you're unsure what exactly to make of Ray Kroc when the credits roll, that's hardly a bad thing. Keaton's performance is so ridiculously absent of sinister leanings that the viewer wants to buy Kroc as a guy finally poised for success and reluctant to let the McDonald brothers jeopardize that. It's capitalism, it's America and it's fast food - all blown up to cinematic heights.


The Disc(s)

On Region A Blu-ray, The Founder is available from Weinstein and Anchor Bay. The release contains BD and DVD inside as well as a Digital HD code redeemable on Ultraviolet and iTunes.

Image quality is excellent, with clear detail emerging across the board. The 2.40:1 widescreen aspect ratio looks excellent in high definition. Colors appear natural and bright, as needed.

Audio sounds similarly good. The English language 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track lets dialogue and music co-exist with pleasing harmony. A Spanish 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio dub is also included. Subtitles are available in English for the hearing impaired.

Extra features are highlighted by a January 2017 press conference (37:44) in Los Angeles with a collection of cast members and behind the scenes principals.

There are also five separate promotional featurettes, lasting about twenty minutes in total, that can be played individually or one after the next. "The Story Behind the Story" (4:31) touches on the history and inspiration of bringing the tale to the screen. "Michael Keaton as Ray Kroc" (3:08) is full of praise for the actor from his co-stars. "The McDonald Brothers" (4:01) explores the actors portraying the pair as well as brief discussion over the real-life individuals. By far the most fascinating of these fluff pieces is "The Production Design" (7:06), which has the film's production designer Michael Corenblith talk mainly about the construction of his two McDonald's restaurants for the film. "Building McDonald's: Time Lapse Video" (1:21) shows the said construction of the Golden Arches iteration in fast forward.

Trailers for Lion and Sing Street play automatically upon inserting the disc. The trailer for The Founder is actually contained on this disc, as it can be found in a file seen upon inserting the disc into a computer, but isn't available anywhere from the menu screen.

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A fascinating film with a stellar lead performance from Michael Keaton, The Founder is easily worth a look


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