Michael Keaton shines in “The Founder”, a film that is to Ray Kroc and McDonalds what “The Social Network” was to Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook, or “Steve Jobs” was to Steve Jobs and Apple. While not as artful as those two films, “The Founder” is still very much a good film, with Keaton’s great performance more than enough justification to watch it.
Biopics are tricky to pace and structure. Most biopics are fairly flat affairs, following an individual’s life linearly, occasionally fudging things a tad to squish a more conventional story into a life more complicated in reality. Personally, I find biopics that have a sharper focus than an individual’s whole life, and that play with structure in interesting ways, to be the most successful. “Love and Mercy” uses two separate actors and time periods with little immediate connection between them to tell the story of Brian Wilson, and it was fantastic. “The Social Network” flits between the legal battles of its protagonists, and their youths when they worked together, as a powerful force of dramatic irony and tension. “Steve Jobs” really drives forth questions of family and whether people can change by consisting primarily of three scenes, very deliberately paralleled.
“The Founder” doesn’t do anything creative structurally, but it does keep a very sharp focus not just on how Ray Kroc became connected to McDonalds, but rather on his relationship with the brothers that actually founded it. The first half of the film is a conventional but well-told story of Kroc growing the business, but the second half of the film is a much meaner, more twisted, cynical, menacing affair. The first half of the film shows the sunny, appealing side of the “pick yourself up by your bootstraps” attitude, of the American dream, of capitalism. The second half exposes it for the inherently cruel system it is, one of the most pointed climatic moments of the film being Kroc explicitly asserting just that. I particularly liked how the second half is a slow descent, one where it’s difficult to pinpoint the precise moments of power dynamics in relationships reversing, whereas the first half was so pointed and clear about it.
This structure and strength in purpose prevents the film from feeling like a by-the-numbers biopic even when it does fall into very tired biopic cliches (like Laura Dern being wasted as the nagging wife figure, and some of the more rote procedural type scenes in the first half), instead positioning the film more as a sort of microcosm of capitalist America, a parable about business and why some thrive and some don’t under capitalism.
One very minor thing that disappointed me was that the film never uses Mark Knopfler’s 2004 song “Boom, Like That” which is literally about the very same story of Ray Kroc that the film is about. Even a touch of the guitar riff would have been a nice reference. Not an issue at all, just something I was surprised the film didn’t do, even in the credits.
While Keaton’s performance and the purposeful story of the film are fantastic, everything else is decidedly average and unmemorable. There are no stylistic touches that will be remembered. The music, cinematography, everything is serviceable and fine, but never used particularly creatively to tell the story of the film. That lies almost entirely in the hands of the script and the cast. So while the film has some truly great elements, I wouldn’t call it a truly great film. I give it three and a half hamburgers, and a coke.