The Founder has Michael Keaton playing Ray Kroc, the man who would turn McDonalds into a global phenomenon. The movie begins in 1954, with Kroc traveling from drive-in to drive-in, struggling to sell mixers. But then he travels to San Bernardino, California, where he visits the McDonald brothers (John Carroll Lynch and Nick Offerman) and their revolutionary method for running a hamburger restaurant. Kroc, always hungry for the next big thing, convinces the brothers to let him lead a massive expansion through franchising. But it soon becomes clear that Kroc has bigger ambitions than these two brothers can handle.The film captures a very specific moment in one person’s life. It doesn’t set a whole lot of context before barreling straight into the meat of this story. The opening scenes basically lay out the problems that the character is facing: he’s having trouble peddling his wares, and the dining experience tied to the places he’s trying to sell to leave much to be desired. By the time he gets to San Bernardino and sees the first McDonalds, one immediately understands the sheer wonder that Kroc must have felt. This was something new and revolutionary, and someone as hungry as Kroc was going to do everything he could to make it his own.The film writes Kroc as a pretty complex figure. It would have been easy to simply make Kroc out to be a monstrous huckster victimizing these brothers. But his actions seem built on a deep insecurity, and a deep belief in the American dream. Inasmuch as Kroc must have been terrible to deal with, there is real ambiguity in his dealings with the McDonald brothers. One does get the sense that the brothers really were lacking in vision, and that only Kroc had the tenacity to really make this franchising enterprise successful.The fascinating thing is that most Hollywood stories are simply about the merits of dreaming big. And here we have a protagonist that does have big dreams. The McDonald brothers are good, solid folk that genuinely care about people, but their lack of vision makes them out to be antagonists. The film really runs on this subversion of roles. It’s easy to make the ruthless businessman out to be the villain, but here he is also the dreamer. He is the one chasing the stars while the humble, hardworking folk are the ones standing in the way of the grand ambition.The direction ends up feeling a bit plain when held up against that daring concept. It doesn’t quite latch on to the satirical hooks of this film, and plays its scenes like a standard prestige biopic. The mismatch in tone is most evident in the score, which really seems to try to force swelling grandeur in this story of down-and-dirty business. Michael Keaton is the perfect man to play Kroc, though. His working-guy charms serve the role really well, and his ability to deliver desperate bluster is what provides the character his soul. He finds a worthy foil in Nick Offerman, who as Dick McDonald represents the complete opposite of a corporate vision.The Founder is a fascinating profile of a pretty complex individual. It’s a pretty breezy watch in spite of some dry material, which involves contract negotiations and franchising arcana and all manner of other business stuff that movies try to tend to avoid. And though the direction doesn’t always cooperate, the little bits of subversion shine through anyway, the script allowing us to question expectations, depicting a rabidly capitalistic world where there aren’t so much good guys and bad guys. There are just people who make the money, and the people who don’t.
THE FOUNDER IS NOW SHOWING IN CINEMAS NATIONWIDE.