As Michael Keaton settles into the peak era of his acting career, his wizened features and melancholic gaze make him perfectly suited for subtle desperation. It was only a matter of time before he channeled the plight of a struggling salesman, and “The Founder” provides the actor with that ideal vessel.
As Ray Kroc, the McDonald’s executive who swindled the franchise’s founders out of their stake in the company, Keaton effectively swings from Willie Loman to Walter White. The movie gives him just enough material to elevate an otherwise straightforward drama that, while littered with smart and subtle moments, has all the depth of a Wikipedia entry. “The Founder” provides some intriguing backstory to a franchise largely taken for granted in American society, and Robert Siegel’s screenplay carries it along well enough through all the expected beats. Keaton, however, makes them credible. It’s his show.
When Kroc first surfaces in “The Founder,” he’s a textbook case for blue collar frustration in postwar America. It’s 1952, he’s hurdling around middle America in his scrappy car attempting to sell milkshake machines to disinterested vendors, and listening to a recording of “The Power of Positive Thinking” after hours in a cramped hotel room. His conundrum takes a sudden turn when he learns that Maurice (John Carroll Lynch) and Richard (Nick Offerman) McDonald, brothers running an innovative fast food shack out of San Bernardino, are interested in his wares. They want some milkshake machines — a lot of them. When Kroc hears their last name over the phone, he shivers just enough — as Carter Burwell’s score highlights the revelation — to make it clear where this story’s going.
The high demand piques Kroc’s interest enough for him to go investigate. It’s there that he discovers the brilliance of the McDonalds’ concept — an assembly-line production for delivering hamburgers and fries en masse that keeps the clients coming. While the McDonalds have settled into their carefully-managed operation, Kroc sees dollar signs in the potential for national expansion. The best scenes in “The Founder” come from these opening exchanges, as Kroc coaxes the brothers into explaining the origins of their operation. Lynch and Offerman are perfect fits for playing a duo of deadpan entrepreneurs unprepared to cope with the wily Kroc, whose proposal for expanding McDonald’s ultimately evolves into a real estate scheme that allows him to take control of the operation.
Directed by John Lee Hancock, the story takes its cues from Siegel’s well-researched script that provides a fascinating breakdown of McDonald’s early days. The flashback montages that find the brothers laying out their saga have the rhythms of documentary, and wouldn’t seem out of place in an Errol Morris project: There’s an undercurrent of irony to depicting the fast food business in poetic terms. But there it is: Over dinner, the brothers recall mapping out their kitchen’s “symphony of efficiency” on an empty tennis court, while they look down on the creation from atop a ladder, gods of their self-made culinary universe. Aided by Burwell’s wondrous cues and Robert Schwartzman’s colorful cinematography, the sequence lays out the evolution of an American dream — and setting the stage for Kroc’s invasion of it.
The turning point arrives when Kroc sees plans for a previously planned McDonald’s expansion outfit, complete with the yellow neon arches known to all today. Enthusiastically describing them as “like something spun from the mind of Henry Ford,” Kroc’s driven to transform McDonald’s into a next-level enterprise, much to the consternation of his concerned wife (Laura Dern in a thankless supporting role).
Once Kroc takes control, “The Founder” sags into a less inspired series of events, from the bumpy road of quality control to the McDonalds’ increasingly frustrated phone calls to Kroc as he grows more confident about his growing empire. Eventually, BJ Novak surfaces in a humorless part to provide Kroc with real estate advice, and then it’s just a downward spiral to the inevitable bait-and-switch that allowed him to buy the brothers out of their business.
Even as “The Founder” trudges along with few surprises, Keaton remains an object of fixation, playing Kroc less as pure bad guy than aspiring capitalist. Adopting a convincing midwestern twang, his mock-cheery attitude wouldn’t look out of place in a Coen brothers film. But those brothers would surely find a livelier approach to the third act, and ask for a couple of rewrites. The movie’s ham-fisted dialogue falls short of Keaton’s persuasive turn (“Business is war,” Kroc asserts, as if were it a major revelation) and the somber atmosphere often relies on repetitive devices (Kroc looks longingly at a U.S. map of his growing business on so many occasions it’s a wonder the image didn’t make the poster).
For a movie about fast food, its ideas are awfully overdone.
If “The Founder” comes up short of providing a satisfactory dramatization of its main storyline, at least it peels back the veil with sufficient intrigue. Yet it still leaves the sour impression that Kroc got the last laugh. Even in this less-than-flattering portrait, he remains its brightest star.
“The Founder” opens in Los Angeles on December 7, followed by a national expansion on January 20.