Michael Keaton can convey so much with an expression. There are scenes in John Lee Hancock’s The Founder where he doesn’t need dialogue to show what’s going through his head. Luckily, a lot of the writing here is quite good and often gets close to matching the lead’s masterful performance.
The pic has Keaton playing Ray Kroc, the man who started McDonald’s. Well, sort of. We open in 1954 as Kroc is a struggling traveling salesman in Missouri who stumbles upon a restaurant in San Bernardino, California. It’s doing things differently from the endless drive-in joints across the nation. Run by Dick (Nick Offerman) and Mac (John Carroll Lynch) McDonald, McDonald’s makes its food fast in an era the term fast food was yet to be coined. The brothers also take their work seriously and have chosen not to franchise after their first try resulted in poor service and quality. There’s a scene where Dick recalls how the restaurant’s burger making assembly line was perfected that’s an absolute joy to watch.
Ray immediately realizes the cash cow that Dick and Mac are sitting on and his relentless salesmanship gets them to relent on opening more locations. This brings forth a flurry of activity as Ray gets those Golden Arches up while constantly clashing with the actual founders.
Director Hancock’s last effort, Saving Mr. Banks, showed another 1950s era titan of industry with an unending drive and ambition in the form of Walt Disney. Kroc is just as much an icon in many ways, though his motives are often far more ruthless. The screenplay by Robert D. Siegel doesn’t exactly make him a villain, but you won’t exactly sympathize with him either. With rare exception, Kroc’s actions are all about his personal gain. He barely speaks to his wife (Laura Dern) and has his eye on a business partner’s wife (Linda Cardellini). Yet at the same time, it was him who had the vision to expand a chain of restaurants that now feeds 1% of the world every day. And it probably took his kind of personality to do it.
The work of Lynch and Offerman is top-notch. Offerman’s Dick sees the writing on the wall with Ray, while Lynch’s Mac can’t quite get there. This is Keaton’s movie, though. Like Michael Douglas’s Gordon Gekko in Wall Street and Daniel Day-Lewis’s Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood, Keaton gives us another corporate honcho to kind of despise and kind of love. The Founder may not be as fantastic as those two pictures, but the star is and it’s quite entertaining watching the intrigue unfold.
***1/2 (out of four)