The first half-hour of “The Founder” might make you hungry, but you’ll lose your appetite by the final credits. If Morgan Spurlock’s “Super Size Me” hasn’t already given you second thoughts about patronizing McDonald’s, “The Founder” wants to eliminate any doubt.
Director John Lee Hancock’s film is a biopic of Ray Kroc, the man responsible for bringing the golden arches to the free world. The film’s title may as well be in quotation marks, since “The Founder” suggests Kroc’s title is undeserved.
Kroc is played by Michael Keaton, who was just becoming a household name around the time the real-life Kroc died in the early 1980s. Keaton, whose recent career resurgence featured a best actor nomination for 2014’s “Birdman,” is perfect for a role that demands a quirky performance that emotes sympathy and disgust almost simultaneously.
We meet Kroc in the mid-1950s as he’s peddling milkshake mixers to mom and pop drive-ins around the Midwest. It’s merely the latest in a long line of gadgets the 52-year-old salesman has hocked in his career, though from the look of his house and dutiful wife, Ethel (Laura Dern), he seems to have done well for himself. Still, the mixer becomes a piece of fast-food history when a tiny burger joint in California named McDonald’s orders an unprecedented eight units.
In disbelief, Kroc takes an impromptu road trip down Route 66 and finds a pair of brothers in San Bernardino who have revolutionized the food industry. Dick and Mac McDonald (Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch, respectively) happily tell Kroc how they essentially invented fast food, and Kroc convinces them to let him bring their idea to the rest of the country.
At this point, Kroc is a lovable sad sack, with enough of a greasy salesman sheen to tickle your nose hairs, but enough bravado to hook you in the end. His plan is to turn the McDonalds’ hamburger stand into the next great American church, with locations all across small town America and, over the first half of the film, that’s exactly what happens.
Unfortunately, vast franchising doesn’t automatically turn into big bucks, and as McDonald’s starts to run into financial trouble, the cracks in Kroc’s cooperative façade start to show. Corners get cut in production as Kroc introduces a powdered milkshake to save on refrigeration costs, and a financial expert named Harry J. Sonneborn (B.J. Novak) explains to Kroc how leasing land to McDonald’s franchise owners will allow him to take control of the business from Dick and Mac.
Piece by piece, we watch the McDonald brothers’ American dream get twisted into the McDonald’s empire we know today. Hancock plays things out in no frills fashion, telling the story chronologically, but “The Founder” also features an almost imperceptible corny sheen to it, almost meant to evoke the plastic world of fast food to come.
Keaton takes center stage throughout the film, and his perfectly rationalized wickedness is complemented by Offerman and Lynch, who blend righteous indignation with a growing sense of impending defeat as Kroc tightens their nooses. Other casualties include Ethel and a franchise owner named Rollie Smith (Patrick Wilson), whose wife, Joan (Linda Cardellini), is at Kroc’s side by the end of the film.
In portraying a man who has been dead for more than 30 years, “The Founder” doesn’t do much to let Kroc defend his actions or offer his side of the story. It isn’t hard to imagine a rebuttal or two to this “dark side of capitalism” narrative, and when Kroc riffs on the importance of “winning,” audiences will likely apply contemporary meaning to the story. Altogether, Hancock and Keaton have created a very well-told and well-acted film, but “The Founder” will leave you with a bad taste in your mouth.
“The Founder” is rated PG-13 for brief strong language; running time: 115 minutes.