Michael Keaton serves up an excellent performance as McDonald's executive Ray Kroc.
‘The Founder” tells the story of how a dirt-bag (maverick?) businessman revolutionized the fast-food industry and made McDonald’s a household name. But director John Lee Hancock (“The Blind Side”) has a touch as golden as the iconic arches, deftly deep frying notions of capitalism, the American dream and even, by happenstance, Donald Trump. You can’t escape the coincidence of “The Founder” opening nationwide on the same day as Trump’s inauguration. To be fair, the film was shot, edited and wrapped long before Trump won. However, in watching it now, you can’t help but connect a ruthless businessman kicking butt and taking names to our modern reality.
Hancock, working from a script by Robert Siegel (“The Wrestler”), details how Ray Kroc (a pitch-perfect Michael Keaton) pulls the rug out from right under Mac (John Carroll Lynch) and Dick McDonald (Nick Offerman), who were were running a small-potatoes burger operation in 1950s Southern California. As Kroc, Keaton is as glib as ever – a spot-on casting choice. His performance is Quarter-Pounder juicy. Oscar voters should take notice.
When we first meet Kroc, he’s a struggling salesman, traveling to drive-in burger joints across the heartland, unsuccessfully hawking a multi-prong milkshake mixer. The script eventually sends Kroc to San Bernardino where the speed and efficiency of the McDonald brothers’ fledgling operation blows him away. With dollar signs in his eyes, Kroc sees franchise potential and inserts himself into their business. Greed and ambition take over. Kroc eventually loosens the tight leash the McDonalds have him on by focusing on savvy marketing and real-estate expansion. Kroc builds a burger-and-fries empire on the premise that there can never be too many McDonald’s. It worked. Today, there are 36,000 locations. But how he screws over Dick and Mac on his way to creating a billion-dollar empire is the film’s focus.
The McDonald brothers are played with aw-shucks likability by Offerman and Lynch. Their main beef with Kroc was that growing too quickly would adversely affect quality. They’d rather one dynamite restaurant instead of a fleet of unmanageable locations spread across the country. It’s their name after all. Kroc sees it differently.
“The Founder” is not a positive depiction of Kroc, who died in 1984. At first glance, Kroc is a symbol of the American dream, a down-on-his-luck guy hustling to make a buck, and Keaton, with his everyman appeal, earns our approval. But as the movie moves along, the filmmakers characterize him as power-hungry and shady, a guy who wants others to kiss his ring. He is, as the McDonald brothers call him, “a professional leech.” And the more complicated the part becomes, the more Keaton rises to the challenge. With his manic moves and motor mouth he nails his role to perfection. Never does the Oscar nominee for “Birdman” miss a step.
The movie also benefits from a stable of fine actors in supporting roles, including Laura Dern as Kroc’s first wife, Ethel, who quietly wins our empathy the more ruthless her husband becomes. She dares to ask him, “When is it enough?” Linda Cardellini and Patrick Wilson are terrific as McDonald’s franchisees, and B.J. Novak is Kroc’s shrewd lawyer. Even with an ensemble as fine as this, the movie still belongs squarely to Keaton. He’s the special sauce – and I’m lovin’ it.
Dana Barbuto may be reached at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @dbarbuto_Ledger.
THE FOUNDER (PG-13 for language and some suggestive material.) Cast: Michael Keaton, Nick Offerman, John Carroll Lynch Linda Cardellini, B.J. Novak, Laura Dern. Grade: A-