The title of this movie is a lie. Ray Kroc was not the founder of McDonald’s; that dubious honor belongs to Mac and Dick McDonald, two unassuming brothers who operated a hamburger stand in San Bernardino, California with seemingly little ambition beyond serving up their meat, buns, and fries to their customers as quickly as possible. When Kroc, played by Michael Keaton with serpentine cunning in director John Lee Hancock’s new film, stumbles upon the stand (the brothers ordered an astounding eight milkshake mixers from Kroc, more than he’s moved as a traveling salesman in months), he is impressed by the system the brothers have developed, and thinks he sees a way to franchise it — first in California, then the Midwest, and then the world.
Of course, Kroc’s grand ambitions come with a price — his soul, more or less — but he’s all too willing to fork it over and it’s not really clear whether he even had one to sell in the first place. What keeps The Founder interesting through its many scenes of business gobbledy-gook and restaurant-launching montages is that it does not adhere strictly to the rise-and-fall-and-rise-again template of so many recent biopics, with our hero (or in some cases, anti-hero) learning some kind of life lesson by the end, usually while at death’s door. No, in The Founder, Kroc is pretty much a son of a bitch: he ultimately screws the McDonald brothers (played with a mix of compassion and dense gullibility by Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch), leaves his long-suffering wife (Laura Dern in the usual underwritten and under-served slot), steals away another man’s spouse, battles the law and employees and the rest…and keeps winning.
At first, you’re sort of with him, thanks to the machinations of the script and Keaton’s flawless performance: regardless of what you think of McDonald’s food, you’re rooting for the guy who has a vision and sees how much bigger McDonald’s could be, a sort of egalitarian family restaurant where you get speed, quality and great customer service. The brothers are initially positioned as almost needlessly resistant to any sort of change. But then the balance begins to shift: after all, it’s their restaurant, their recipes and their system — shouldn’t they keep it as small or as large as they want? By that time, however, there’s no stopping the relentless Kroc, always in motion and always with a drink in his hand, and who is not going to let anyone get in the way of what he perceives as his last grasp at the golden ring (or in this case, arches).
Most of this comes through purely thanks to the power of Keaton’s work. Hancock, who deified Walt Disney in Saving Mr. Banks, certainly doesn’t glorify Kroc here. Instead, he lets the story play out in his unspectacular, just-a-hair-above-TV-movie-mode manner. On one hand, that makes for a rather neat and uncluttered film for the most part; on the other, it leaves the door open for a much more barbed or even satiric look at McDonald’s that Hancock never explores. What about the cost in public health that Kroc’s vision wrought? What about the fast food nation that McDonald’s helped birth, complete with its world-leading obesity levels? No, of course that can’t all be laid at the feet of the McDonald brothers or Kroc — we make the choice to buy the shit, after all — but those are aspects of the McDonald’s story that are left behind.
Instead, we get a lot of meetings with men in suits, a few shouting matches, some discussions of money with B.J. Novak and one comic attempt at eroticism as Linda Cardellini (also underused, playing the spouse that Kroc makes off with) shows an overheated Kroc a new formula for mixing a milkshake. It’s telling that this is the closest The Founder comes to actual sex; Kroc seems to be turned on the most simply by acquiring things — Cardellini, a boatload of new stores, millions of dollars, a business empire he had neither a hand in devising nor running but simply selling.
In many ways, he was the role model for the modern businessman, doing nothing creative on his own and simply earning money off the hard work of others. Perhaps, in that sense, he was the founder after all.
The Founder is out in wide release on Jan. 20.