John Lee Hancock is not exactly among my favorite filmmakers. Sans a decent performance here and there, his The Blind Side and Saving Mr. Banks largely bored me to tears. These and other efforts struck me as heart-tugging mush, without a whole lot of style or ingenuity to speak of.
This lack of cinematic flourish, I'm happy to report, is not nearly as much on display in Hancock's latest picture, The Founder. This time around, the director is working from a fine screenplay (from The Wrestler scribe Robert Siegel) and alongside three marvelous actors, all operating at the tops of their games. It's a movie that marks a plenty respectable finish to 2016 in film.
The Founder opens in 1954 with the floundering, yet mightily determined Illinois salesman Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton) bouncing around from one drive-in restaurant to another, trying, with minimal success, to sell his latest milkshake mixers. At last, one eatery in southern California bites - a successful little hamburger joint called McDonald's. Kroc heads west and is head-over-heels for the place, established by brothers Dick (Nick Offerman) and Mac (John Carroll Lynch) McDonald. He sees their speedy method of making food as a winner, with enormous franchise potential. So, Kroc manages to get the McDonalds on board with expanding their baby but conflict between the entrepreneurs rises as McDonald's becomes a runaway hit and Kroc leaves the McDonald brothers in the dust.
All of the material here featuring the McDonald brothers packs a real punch. It's a mouth-watering delight watching the burger-making process, and there's a particularly inventive scene in which Dick and Mac, alongside their first employees, work on a tennis court to figure out the appropriate operation. There are also several moments of tremendous tension later in the picture, as the McDonalds become more and more irrelevant to the juggernaut that is Kroc's McDonald's.empire. It is a true pleasure seeing Offerman and Lynch with prime big screen roles like this, and Keaton is a blast to watch as the ruthlessly committed Kroc.
If The Founder has any real misstep, it is in the casting of top-notch actors like Laura Dern, Patrick Wilson and Linda Cardellini in thankless supporting turns that act more as window dressing than roles of real significance. That quibble aside, the film is a lot of fun, Kroc's warts and all.