“Money, money, money, must be funny in a rich man’s world,” ABBA sang in the late 70s – and it certainly is funny here at times. The Founder turns the camera to Ray Croc, the guy who made McDonald’s what it is, to put greed and dirty tricks into context. Ultimately, it brings us an interesting, dramatised life story of the billionaire who built his success by trampling the others.
In the 1950s, Ray Croc is a door-to-door salesman who tries his hardest to make money – however, it doesn’t bring him much profit. One day, mesmerised by a bizarre order that he receives, he heads to California just to find an innovative food business. It solves all the problems that he’s ever experienced. And it’s simple yet revolutionary: you don’t have to wait for the food due to streamlined preparation, and the place has a massive capacity to serve. He convinces the McDonald brothers to give the franchise system a shot; when he realises how much the concept is worth, he carries on innovating, pulling a lot of dirty stunts along the way.
The film relies strongly on portraying Ray Croc – and allows the audience to make the final judgement. John Lee Hancock shows him as vulnerable when he’s laughed at in a members’ club. Then, he depicts his salesman charm when he convinces the people to join the franchise army to later portray him as ruthless when he does everything to separate the owners of the business from their idea. It’s about the character at the centre of the events, circling around the choices he makes. Dissecting the motives, and assessing his behaviour is in the filmgoers’ hands.
A lot of the film is about making the business practices a story. Unlike The Big Short that would have a go at explaining some of the buzzwords to the clueless audience, it doesn’t spend time on being obvious. Some things just pop up when the astonished characters, be it Croc himself or any of his contacts, get to know about them. It also speaks about the power of the brand. Croc didn’t merely fight for the patent – he did this for a surname that he attached to certain values and promoted as such, that made his manoeuvres well known. That is probably one of the strongest metaphors in the film – you can take the innovation and make it yours; a lot of people come up with ideas and they are cheap until they’re executed. But when you take the name attached to it, which is also personal heritage, it’s when it hurts the most. Croc takes the hard work, optimism and happiness of the brothers and sets it as the core; he knows how to market his business, too, picking all the right words. But soon enough, he robs the McDonalds of their story and what made their restaurant the place it was.
The film somewhat aspires to be Wolf of the Wall Street eating Big Mac – but because it relies on the business slogans, it sometimes falls behind on showing Croc’s personal life. We do get a glimpse; but his unsuccessful marriage is almost blamed on his wife’s lack of feeding the man’s power-hungry ego rather than on qualities that probably made it happen, ultimately linking it to his goals again. What saves the film from the mundanity that perpetual loop brings is a healthy dose of humour, which distorts the events a bit and bends them into a satire.
The Founder relies on the electric performance of Michael Keaton (extremely successful Birdman actor). With his charm in carefully calculated words and gestures, we cannot help but follow his character until the very end, no matter what we think of him. He recreates a salesman who believes in his mission more than in anything else. If he needs to destroy people on the way, so be it – and the actor holds onto his charismatic persona, who’s as much a protagonist as an antagonist.
Although sometimes it stands up for Croc’s message like a well-crafted advertisement of his philosophy, The Founder effectively dilutes it, for the most part, to make you stop and think. Putting a focus on the main character and utilising Keaton’s charisma, it delivers an enjoyable and (bitterly) funny flick.
PS. The film also makes you strangely hungry. But there’s always a McDonald’s down the road…