Who matters more: the inventor, or the impresario?

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Keaton: a nuanced performance of a flawed business leader

The Founder

Directed by John Lee Hancock, starring Michael Keaton. On general release across the UK

The Founder tells the story of how McDonald’s evolved from a single restaurant into a global icon. Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton) is a struggling salesman hawking milkshake machines at every mediocre drive-in across the American Midwest. When a restaurant in San Bernardino places an unexpected order for eight machines, he drives to California to find out why and discovers that brothers Dick and Mac McDonald (Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch) have devised a new system that allows them to deliver decent fast food quickly and cheaply. Kroc immediately sees the opportunity and persuades the brothers to let him franchise the restaurants.

Initially this works well, with Kroc keeping standards high by ensuring  that franchise owners are ambitious middle-class strivers, rather than rich absentee landlords. But his ambitious plans for expansion and desire to cut costs conflict with the brothers’ insistence on quality. His marriage to his wife Ethel (Laura Dern) also starts to disintegrate. Facing cash-flow problems and hounded by creditors, Kroc is presented with a plan by an admirer of the restaurant (BJ Novak) that promises not only to save his house, but also to allow him to take effective control of the new firm from under the brothers’ noses.

At the heart of the film is a big question about the nature of entrepreneurship. Who matters more: the inventor, who creates something from scratch, or the impresario, who brings it to the masses? In some respect, The Founder resembles The Social Network, the 2010 film about Mark Zukerberg and Facebook. Both involve a driven, flawed business leader who took someone else’s modest idea and turned it into something far greater. Keaton underlines this with a nuanced performance that combines dedication and hard work with an undertone of menace. Although The Founder is not quite as good as The Social Network, it’s still worth making the effort to see it while it remains in cinemas, or to catch it on DVD in a few months’ time

What the press said

The Founder “shows us something about postwar entrepreneurial capitalism, innovation, corporate expansion and intellectual property rights”, says Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian. Yet the story is often “too formulaic and ingratiating”, says Robbie Collin in The Daily Telegraph, even though the result is “well acted and darkly entertaining”. Ultimately, the firm suffers from being “extremely wishy-washy, unable to scrub the nastiness of Kroc’s success but also incapable of confronting it”, says David Sims in The Atlantic. The result is rather like “a Wikipedia entry in which all the controversial material is squeezed into one small section at the bottom”.