Tuesday, February 21, 2023

Johnny California: THE FOUNDER

 by JB

This criminally underseen film from late 2016 is two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions, on a sesame seed bun.

I was lucky enough to see John Lee Hancock’s The Founder in a theater before it all but disappeared in the winter of 2017. It’s a terrific, though flawed film, featuring awards-worthy performances by Michael Keaton, Nick Offerman, and John Carroll Lynch that were all, sadly, overlooked at awards time. At the time of the film’s release, some tasty award nominations, sprinkled about like salt on French fries, could have garnered this film the attention it deserved.

The Plot in Brief: Unsuccessful salesman Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton) pays a visit to a San Bernardino hamburger stand called McDonalds because its owners Dick and Mac (Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch) have ordered an unprecedented eight milkshake machines. The brothers proudly show Kroc their whole operation, which gets customers their food incredibly fast. Kroc convinces the brothers to allow him to franchise the rights to build McDonalds restaurants across the country. Through sheer force of will and persistence, Kroc builds the franchise into the burger empire we all know today... and begins a crusade to push out Mac and Dick.
While the casting of Keaton is critical to the film’s success, it is also something of an albatross around the film’s neck. Keaton is a performer that audiences instinctively like and empathize with; at the beginning of the film, we side with Kroc and want to see him succeed. But the dark, satiric edge that the film wants to possess is blunted because, even as Kroc begins to act immorally, we still kind of like him. We see Kroc lie to the brothers, renege on his original contract, claim to reporters that he actually started the restaurant chain, plagiarize a motivational phonograph record in a speech at a Ronald Reagan fundraising banquet, and in the film’s best scene, declare, “If I saw a competitor drowning, I’d shove a hose down his throat.” And we still kind of like him!

I feel the filmmakers’ intent would have been better served by focusing more on the McDonald brothers and making Kroc a supporting character. This may be simply because John Carroll Lynch is one of my favorite actors and Dick McDonald is the role Nick Offerman was born to play, so I wish the two men were in the film more. Still, if the point of the film is that the actual originators of McDonalds Hamburgers were swindled out of their restaurant because they were two nice guys in over their heads, why not focus on them, the swindled, rather than the charming swindler?

Paradoxically, Keaton was the perfect choice to play Kroc because, without personal charisma, Kroc could never have sold the McDonald brothers on his original idea nor built the chain into the behemoth it is today. Maybe the perfect compromise would be to imagine a film told completely from the brothers’ POV, giving them more screen time and focusing on what originally made their restaurant so special... that is at first occasionally, and then incessantly, interrupted by a conniving, avaricious narcissist that keeps reappearing in the brothers’ lives to make them miserable.
I also wish the film devoted a little more screen time to B.J. Novak, who is wonderfully bright-eyed and chipper, playing Harry J. Sonneborn, the former Tastee-Freez executive who gave Kroc the genius idea of buying the land for proposed restaurants and then leasing it to the franchisees. It was the business decision that ultimately made Kroc rich, and it culminates in Novak delivering the film’s best line: “You’re not in the hamburger business, you’re in the real estate business.” Though the narrative of the film ends before the two men had a falling out, I wish The Founder included that piece of the story; eventually, real-life Sonneborn quit as his position as McDonald Corporation’s first CEO and never publicly discussed Kroc or McDonalds ever again.

Hmmmmm. Seems like there’s a story THERE.
But these are quibbles. As I often opine in this column, many American films have trouble being “about” anything other than 100 minutes long. The Founder is about SO MANY things: the nature of success, the American dream, work/life balance, the nature of capitalism, business ethics (an oxymoron?), and the ends to which one is willing to go to make a buck. Heady stuff.

Fortunately, the film does NOT suffer from what I like to call “Super-Size Me Syndrome,” wherein any film about fast food (even the virulently anti-McDonalds documentary Super-Size Me) winds up making the viewer insatiably hungry for the unhealthy eats on display. Perhaps because The Founder focuses on the business side of burgers and fries, I feel safe in saying that the film will not cause a “Mac Attack” in the average viewer.
The Founder offers a lot to like: period-specific details from production designer Michael Corenblith; an affecting, understated score from Carter Burwell; and a parade of terrific supporting performances from Laura Dern, Linda Cardellini, Patrick Wilson, and Kate Kneeland. The script, by Robert Siegel, is both incisive and subtly undermining. At first glance, the film celebrates the famous rise of this famous business, but as the film goes on, we see how cleverly Siegel is critiquing the very story he seems to be mythologizing.

It’s tasty stuff.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. I'm hungry 😎

    But seriously, i welcome anything with Linda Cardellini in it.

  3. The Founder is one of the most entertaining films about American capitalism. I never had any issue with Michael Keaton's casting. As you stated, J.B., Kroc could never have accomplished what he did without having some charm. Keaton does bring the charm. The darker side of Kroc's ambition also comes out.

    You could argue that though the McDonald brothers were pushed out of the business they created, they got what they demanded from Ray Kroc to leave. At the time, buying them out was not inexpensive proposition for Kroc and his backers. Ultimately, Kroc walked all over the brothers and was the financial winner in the deal, but he did give them what they asked for.

  4. The Founder is one of those movies that I liked enough while watching but thought I would never really watch again. Who could have thought that a cast full of actors I love shrouded in misty period gloss telling an adult story for grown ups would yield a film I revisit every couple of years?

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