THE FOUNDER Review: The Story Of A Real Piece Of Shit

If it does well, maybe we’ll get a Wal-Mart movie next.

There are many reasons why people revere The Social Network. One of them is that while it sticks us with a somewhat unpleasant person and marks his rise to astronomical success, it also begins and end with him being pathetic. He gets what he wants but can never truly get what he needs. There’s humanity to that and also a narrative fairness.

The Founder doesn’t have the benefit of this humanity. Its protagonist gets everything he wants and walks out of the film super happy, having just destroyed the lives of good people and successfully given birth to a shitty new America. You could call it a cynical movie, maybe even satire. But it doesn’t really feel like either.

As you probably already know, The Founder tells the story of how Ray Kroc seized upon a systematic burger operation created by McDonald’s brothers Dick (Nick Offerman) and Mac (Zodiac). He talks the brothers into letting him franchise their flagship restaurant, builds it into an empire, and leaves its creators in the dust.

The film lives and dies with Michael Keaton’s performance, and doesn’t much care about its other players. Except for Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch, most actors appear for two, three scenes tops, often as empty suits used to push Kroc’s story along. It’s almost shocking how wasted Laura Dern is here, for instance. Her entire performance is based on looking sad while Kroc ignores her and you kind of wonder why they didn’t just put a wig on crash test dummy.

Twitchy and sporting a slightly affected voice, Keaton gives the role a ton of energy and delivers the kind of performance Academy voters often love. We don’t really know the real Ray Kroc that well, so it doesn't come across as an impression. He’s filling in the shoes of a type, an idea of a man.

And we want to like him. The first half of the film is all about his struggles, told in a pure cinematic narrative that gets us on his side. He’s out on the road, selling crappy milkshake makers. He stumbles upon something great, tries to make something of it. Even while busting his ass turning McDonald’s into an empire, he still can’t pay his mortgage. He’s smart, driven and persistent.

But he’s also not much of a human. We spend the whole movie with Ray Kroc, but aside from his professional persistence and ambition, we don’t get to know him at all. If he succeeds and gets all the money in the world, one gets the idea he wouldn’t know how to spend it. At one point he falls in love with a character played by Linda Cardellini, but we have no idea why. Like everyone else in the movie, Keaton’s also just playing a type. He’s just playing him a lot more than the others.

There is something important about this story, as so much of the society we live in today starts here (another thing this film has in common with The Social Network). The mechanism that made early McDonald’s so revolutionary really was a thing of genius, and limited to a single burger stand in California it’s something that deserves celebration. Writ large, however, it’s all about lowering standards and stepping on the little people of the world. At first, it’s fascinating watching Kroc build this company because you’re watching a man follow a dream. But as his ambition goes from respectable to almost pathological, you realize the world (and as a result, the movie) is only going to reward him for his cruelty toward the McDonald’s brothers and destruction of a certain corner of the American Dream. After all, you don’t have to go far from the theater to see a McDonald’s, no matter where you are.

But whether or not it makes a good movie is harder to say. Like its main character, The Founder is a little unknowable. Already, it’s beginning to slip from memory. It doesn’t go hard enough against Kroc to be a cynical screed, and it’s certainly not funny enough to be a satire. It’s a movie that’s just there. It’ll fill you up with calories, but you’ll wonder why you still don’t feel satisfied.