Early on in The Founder, Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton) is struggling to sell milkshake mixers to roadside diners. After yet another failure, he waits for a waitress to deliver his meal but grows frustrated when she drops off the wrong item. He bangs the steering wheel and looks off into the distance, clearly wondering if there could be another way. Then, as if by magic, he receives a call for a dozen mixers from (you guessed it) the increasingly popular McDonald's restaurant in San Bernardino, California.
The movie's first hour is full of these labored, oversold coincidences. Nothing feels natural or earned; it's as if director John Lee Hancock felt obligated to check off each box on his story to-do list with a king-size permanent marker. Though it eventually settles into a more traditional narrative, with a series of money-grubbing enablers pushing Kroc down a distasteful path, there's a sense throughout that you're traipsing down well-trod territory with no payoff in sight.
It's not all bad; as Kroc visits the McDonald brothers (the terrific Nick Offerman and the equally terrific John Carroll Lynch) in California, their back-and-forth banter provides an early bit of life. And any genuine emotional conflict comes from the slow betrayal of the McDonalds, who are suckers down to their last minutes but can't operate any other way. Hancock owes Offerman and Lynch the world for keeping his story from tanking right out of the gate.
Even more than most biopics, you can tell The Founder twists the truth. Kroc is initially presented as a sad sack salesman who can't catch a break, but he's quickly trusted with franchising privileges by the McDonald brothers and is soon revealed to be a member of a prestigious country club. Within an hour or so, he's a cutthroat CEO who turns a family business into a global behemoth.
Beyond that, Hancock and writer Robert Siegel present a Kroc who can't go five minutes without a drink in his hand. This leads to absolutely nothing; despite what appears to be a budding problem, Kroc builds his empire and even (according to the movie) steals a preferable new wife from a business rival. There's no payoff, karmic or otherwise, for a vice that's cinematically leaned upon for almost two hours.
That's not to say that Hancock and Siegel should punish Kroc the character because Kroc the person was a drinker; it's that introducing the drinking as a consistent story element or motivating factor needs to go somewhere. It could even be portrayed as an unexpected positive; the drinking ups Kroc's confidence, which allows him to unlock the shrewd businessman that was hidden for so long. Instead, it's a distraction that drags down an otherwise engrossing performance from the stellar Keaton.
That's the main problem: we never get a real sense of the real Ray Kroc. Was he a struggling opportunist who found a stray lifeline and never let go? Or a decent guy who got a taste of power and couldn't resist more? To Keaton's unfortunate detriment, he didn't seem to know either. And the subsequent wasting of Laura Dern, Linda Cardellini, and Patrick Wilson is further proof that no one in charge really understood where this was going.
The Founder has already drawn a lot of parallels to the rise of Donald Trump, all of which are quite lazy. For starters, it was conceived and filmed when the idea of a Trump presidency was still a fun joke; more importantly, it's just not that insightful. Someday—if we all live long enough—there will be a wave of Trump-inspired films that artistically unpack the psyche of a megalomaniacal businessman. The Founder is not the beginning of that wave.