The Founder, the story of how the late Ray Kroc went from an obnoxious but seemingly harmless, low-rent food-service-industry salesman to the cutthroat ruler of the McDonald’s fast-food empire, is like a perfectly grilled slice of Kobe beef tucked between functional but ordinary slices of bread. Without Michael Keaton’s fascinating and slyly ferocious performance as Kroc at its heart, The Founder might still be a biting critique of Kroc in particular and rapacious corporate capitalism in general but it wouldn’t be nearly as delicious.
When viewers first meet Kroc, it’s 1954 and he’s unsuccessfully trying to sell a newfangled type of milkshake mixer to burger joints and drive-ins all across the Midwest. As his wife, Ethel (Laura Dern), and friends back home in Arlington Heights, Ill. are quick to tell him, he has long been trying to foist some new gadget on gullible customers, with varying results.
So when Kroc’s secretary, June (Kate Kneeland), informs him that a never-heard-of-them burger outpost in San Bernardino wants six of his shake-maker creations, he decides to drive to California to see what kind of crazy sandwich stand needs that many. That’s where he meets the McDonald brothers — Mac (John Carroll Lynch) and Dick (Nick Offerman) — who’ve invented a streamlined approach to cooking and service in their McDonald’s restaurant that sets Kroc’s head spinning like one of those contraptions that he has been trying to unload. And there’s a cherry on top of this pioneering sundae: The place is mobbed.
The McDonalds sell only three things — burgers made with high-quality beef, uniform fries cooked an exact amount of time, and drinks — and they promise to get customers’ orders ready in 30 seconds, a revolutionary concept at the time. Kroc seizes upon the idea and browbeats the trusting McDonalds into franchising as he soon realizes they have the business cunning of baby goats. He then slowly devours the company from the inside while simultaneously turning it into a global juggernaut.
As conveyed by director John Lee Hancock ( The Blind Side, Saving Mr. Banks) from a script by Robert D. Siegel, Kroc is a classic hustler, a two-bit Gordon Gekko with a grill and a smile who will do or say anything to get what he wants. He feels little compunction in how he treats the McDonalds and the same goes for his long-suffering wife, especially when a younger, prettier face named Joan (Linda Cardellini) comes along.
It’s Keaton’s layered performance, at once desperate and devious, that gives The Founder its presence. The guy at the start of the film, lugging his heavy milkshake contraption around in his beat-up Plymouth Belvedere, is a man in his 50s who sees his life melting into a pool of mediocrity and unfulfilled dreams. He’s the proverbial little guy and McDonald’s is his last chance to make a mark. He’s not going to let it pass him by, and Keaton conveys that hunger, drive and unleashed ambition without lapsing into cliche.
There are other solid performances, too, especially from Offerman and Lynch, and B.J. Novak as heartless corporate climber Harry J. Sonneborn, who helps instruct Kroc on how to legally outfox the McDonalds.
Hancock at times goes for the obvious, and there are moments that seem too simplistic. As is often the case when real life is telescoped into two hours, some events rush by in a blur. It’s not really explained why the McDonald brothers didn’t lawyer up better almost immediately.
But it’s Keaton’s Kroc who holds everything together and remains the most important ingredient, even if the man he’s portraying leaves a sour aftertaste.