I try and be objective with my reviews – I try and be fair and look at all films without bias or a certain favouring of a particular aspect. I could say I watched The Founder for the story (which I didn’t, the story didn’t interest me that much), or I could watch it for the writer and director (neither of which I actually care too much about), or even for the ensemble (arguably very good, but not that memorable) – but if I said any of these things, I would be a complete liar. I watched The Founder for Michael Keaton, and that’s the honest truth. If Keaton hadn’t been in this film, I might not have even given this film a second look – but the fact is that he was in it, and as a shameless Michael Keaton fanatic, I needed to watch it.
Michael Keaton is an icon. He has given some of the most memorable performances of all time, in films like Batman (he still is the best Batman, and I will defend that statement until the end), Beetlejuice, and in smaller but no less memorable films like Mr. Mom, Night Shift and The Dream Team. He’s done amazing dramatic work (such as in Clean and Sober and The Merry Gentleman), along with some incredible villain roles (the trashy but delightful Pacific Heights), and gives one of the greatest performances of the century in Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) – and honestly, that film gave Keaton a career revival that any actor would be beyond fortunate to have – and it put Keaton in a difficult but interesting position – he is now back to being one of the most beloved veteran actors, and his comeback would prove to give him increased popularity – and it was on him to try and find projects that honoured his regained status. Best Picture winner Spotlight was a good choice, as was the upcoming blockbuster Spider-Man: Homecoming. The Founder was another film that would offer Keaton an invaluable opportunity to take on a lead role in an interesting film, and in short, he did a very good job with it.
The Founder is a biographical film centered around Ray Kroc (Keaton), a middle-aged, washed-up salesman that hawks milkshake machines that no one really wants. A chance encounter with two brothers Maurice “Mac” McDonald (John Carroll Lynch) and Richard “Dick” McDonald (Nick Offerman) finds Kroc discovering the business he had been waiting his entire life – a fast-food restaurant that bore the names of the brothers – obviously what would go on to become the gargantuan industry of McDonald’s. Using his cunning and fearlessly cutthroat attitude, Kroc takes the franchise and turns it into a billion dollar industry, taking no prisoners and making sure to create several new partners and even more enemies along the way, most of all the brothers who helped him gain his riches. In short, this is a film about how McDonald’s went from a humble little business to one of the biggest corporations in America, and the key figure who took it there.
The Founder is not the most interesting film, honestly. Usually, films about someone growing a business and rising up in their industry is fascinating, and for a film that compared itself to There Will Be Blood and The Social Network (two of the greatest films of all time), The Founder just lacks something. I blame this on the director – John Lee Hancock is known for directing Sandra Bullock to an Academy Award in The Blind Side, and for a somewhat entertaining (but strangely empty) biopic, Saving Mr. Banks. The one thing about Hancock is that he his films are not dark enough – and The Founder had the darkness, it just didn’t have the execution. It strives too hard to be somewhat uplifting and inspiring, which causes a rift, because when you have a story of such a vicious man condensed into an attempted uplifting biopic, there is just a difference between story and execution. The Founder attempts to go to some very dark places, but it remedies that by adding unneeded schmaltz and cliched narrative, which was the film’s biggest downfall. Despite being a huge titan of world business, the story of how McDonald’s was founded is not necessarily the most riveting experience, and if it was a story that needed to be told, it needed to go all-in on its vicious, malicious atmosphere and create something terrifying in a way.
Despite the story and flaws in the filmmaking, however, The Founder does feature great performances. I don’t want to be a shameless supporter and say that Keaton has never been better, because I can honestly think of a dozen performances where Keaton was far superior, but The Founder just allows him to show off that natural and unique charm he has with playing this nasty, malicious characters, while still being charming beyond belief. Keaton rises above the mediocre material he is given and gives a truly dedicated performance, playing Kroc as a vicious pitbull of a business, ready to attack anyone that stands in his way. It is a great villainous performance from Keaton, and much needs to be given to Keaton, Robert Siegel (the screenwriter) and Hancock for retaining one crucial element of Kroc – he was a truly terrible person, and it would have been easy for The Founder to present Kroc as this heroic, misunderstood business genius – but it does the difficult task of presenting Kroc as exactly what he was – a cutthroat, cruel and malicious sociopath. It may not be Keaton’s best performance, but I’ll be damned if he isn’t great in the film.
The rest of the cast is varied. John Carroll Lynch and Nick Offerman are wonderful as the two McDonald brothers, and bring much needed empathy and reality to this film. Laura Dern is very good, but majorly underused. If you are going to get a great actress like Laura Dern, at least use her properly. Patrick Wilson is also great, but also underutilized, which bothers me tremendously, because smaller performances by inferior actors were given preference. Overall, none of the performances in this film (except for BJ Novak, a strange actor if there ever was one) were bad, but they paled in comparison to Keaton. Only Lynch and Offerman were given anything substantial to work with – and made me believe that given the opportunity, if The Founder had focused only on their incredible true story of how they themselves founded the original McDonald’s, it would’ve been even better.
The Founder is a good film, but not a great one. It features a marvelous leading performance from Michael Keaton, who commits to the role wonderfully. The rest of the cast is good, but underused. As a whole, it is a tremendously interesting film, with a story that could’ve been done more justice with a little bit more focus on the actual cruelty of the story. It does manage to be less saccharine and dull than many biopics, but I still longed for something more. Overall, it is a good film, but not one that I’d suggest watching unless you’re a Keaton fanatic (like I am), or if you’ve got an intrinsic interest in the subject matter. Other than that, you might as well give it a miss and watch a better film (like There Will Be Blood – if you haven’t seen There Will Be Blood, then get a move on it, its the greatest films of the 21st century).