The legends of America’s great robber barons are equal parts inspiring and appalling. And damned if “The Founder” doesn’t get that balance just right.
Director John Lee Hancock (“The Blindside”) tells the story of McDonald’s tycoon Ray Kroc with old fashioned warmth and pluck, and new-fangled dark edges and cynicism.
And in the title role, Michael Keaton makes Kroc his most lovable screen villain since Beetlejuice.
Robert D. Siegel (“The Wrestler”) picks up the Kroc story in 1954, when this 50something serial failure stopped peddling milk shake mixers the minute he caught a gander at the little San Bernadino burger joint that has just become his best customer.
Kroc’s a plucky, hard-drinking, hard-working self-helping loser, or close to it. He’s been working in the restaurant supply trades for years, struggling, forever disappointing his lonely, society-conscious wife (Laura Dern). As doors slam are slammed in his face in fast food joints all over his native Illinois, places with names like Piggie Park Drive-in, Kroc has a Walt Disney-sized epiphany.
The service, by overworked women in roller skates, is lousy. The menus are a hodge-podge, the food takes too long and there are too many mistakes.
Then, he visits the McDonald brothers. One of the glories of this script is its dogged determination to give the “real” founders of McDonald’s their due. John Carroll Lynch and Nick Offerman, perfectly cast as Mac and Dick, have failed a few times themselves. But they’ve come up with a limited menu, no dining room/no utensils mass production system that is the epitome of “the better mousetrap.”
And Ray Kroc beats a path to their door. In a witty montage that includes black and white still photos of the brothers’ earlier efforts — driving trucks for movie studios, owning a movie theater, selling BBQ — we see efficiency-obsessed Dick (Offerman, of course) working out the ballet of burger building, laying out and testing a model kitchen, in chalk, on a tennis court. They try first one assembly (“make”) line after another, with their staff walking through the motions, erasing the chalk and starting over until Dick creates “a symphony of efficiency.”
Orders filled almost instantly, French fries perfectly crisped, every burger with two slices of pickle, perfect dabs of ketchup and mustard, satisfied and instantly-gratified customers. They invented it all, right down to the Golden Arches.
Ray wants in. And if you know anything about the rest of the story, what Ray wants, Ray gets.
Keaton, affecting Kroc’s nasal Chicago twang, summons up memories of his early, patter-packed career. Think “Night Shift.” Kroc may be a real piece’a work, but he’s got vision. And Keaton sells that vision — God, family and Golden Arches, Americana on a bun. An almost-instant credit thief, a gambler and a huxter, Keaton’s Kroc becomes a Mickey D’s evangelist.
Yeah, we’re treated to Kroc’s most desperate moment with a, “Look, I’m gonna level with you. I really NEED this” speech. Siegel’s script has the odd trite recycled line and is conventionally structured, but perfectly-pitched and beautifully played. There’s victory snatched from the jaws of defeat, conflict as the pace of change rattles the small-timers Kroc is in business with and more conflict at home as Kroc realizes that his wife’s country club “idle rich” are not the sort of hard-working folks he wants running his franchises.
And there’s the turn toward the dark side — greed, shortcuts on food quality, battles with the McDonald brothers, the married Kroc’s pursuit of the wife (Linda Cardellini) of a business partner (Patrick Wilson). Keaton reminds us that even at his most adorable, he’s still got an unpleasant edge he can whip out.
A feel-good movie like “The Founder,” pitched somewhere between “Big Eyes” and “The Master” in tone, is proof that even though Keaton has yet to win the Oscar he so craved for “Birdman,” his real victory is landing roles in “Spotlight” and “The Founder.” Like Ray Kroc, he’s a talent whose greatest strength may be on that salesman’s self-help LP Kroc listens to in dinky motel rooms, struggling for a break.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for brief strong language
Cast: Michael Keaton, Laura Dern, Nick Offerman, John Carroll Lynch, Linda Cardellini, Patrick Wilson
Credits:Directed by John Lee Hancock, script by Robert D. Siegel. A Weinstein Co. release.Patrick Wilson
Running time: 1:55