The last time Laura Dern worked on a project involving writer/director John Lee Hancock, it was the excellent A Perfect World, that Hancock wrote and Clint Eastwood directed. There, she had a meaty role, and brought to it the gravity and commitment we’ve come to expect from a Laura Dern performance. For Hancock’s latest, The Founder – which he directs, this time from a script by Robert Siegel – it’s incredibly miserable then to see Dern reduced to what may just be the most thankless role of her career. Here, she’s the wife of Michael Keaton’s Ray Kroc, but in terms of a character on screen, her job is to wear either an evening dress or nightwear, and basically to scowl at and nag her husband. Like most of The Founder, away from the main narrative, these sequences have little weight or substance to them, and whoever Dern’s agent is surely needs to re-evaluate things urgently.
Her role stands out too because the film around her falls a great deal flatter than you might expect, with all but one-and-a-bit characters reduced to two dimensional roles. The film is the story not quite of the genesis of McDonald’s, but that of the man who took it around the world. That man is Keaton’s Kroc, who we meet trying to sell milkshake machines, not with a great deal of success. In spite of pretty much everyone turning him down, he out of the blue gets a bigger than expected order from one hamburger joint in California. One road trip later, he’s looking at the very first McDonald’s. Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch play Dick and Mac McDonald, with the former getting to be the uptight suspicious one, and the latter the more open, interested one. Both actors work well with what they’re given – Offerman in particular is strong – but they ain’t given that much.
Keaton is, though. And as the first half of the movie plays out as a party political for McDonald’s to some degree, Kroc very slowly sets out on the path to becoming a corporate bastard. It’s a gently told tale, this, with Hancock bringing the same interest in recent American history that he brought to the far superior Saving Mr Banks. You can’t help but draw parallels between the two, not least because the pair both play archive footage over their end credits that enriches what came before.
The problem with The Founder, though, is the story being told isn’t anywhere near as interesting. What’s more, half of the people who see it will have a McDonald’s within walking distance on their way out of the multiplex, so the ending is hardly in doubt. Thus, I found myself clinging onto to Keaton’s coattails, with his gradual transformation of Kroc – sometimes with a little flash for me of Pacific Heights’ Carter Hayes – the film’s key component.
Odd segues don’t help. The introduction of Linda Cadellini’s Joan Smith, for instance, is signposted and not really handled well. The likes of Patrick Wilson and B J Novak get to add a few lines here and there too, but again, their characters feel more like story glue than people we ever get to know.
As the film gets towards it end, it’s willing to bare some teeth a little more, and at no stage did I feel bored by The Founder. But I was disappointed by it. It has sporadic sequences of interest, and Keaton is an excellent tour guide for the story. But by the end, I wasn’t quite sure why it was here, and what it was ultimately trying to do. A pity, as I like the players, and have greatly enjoyed Hancock’s work many times before. But, much like the hamburger joint of the film’s subject, I couldn’t help feeling that the ingredients here could have been put to something more nourishing. Keaton aside, I’d all but forgotten about the movie in a matter of days. A missed opportunity.
The Founder is in UK cinemas from February 17th.