‘The Founder” is a wink of a title. It’s about Ray Kroc, the man who turned a California hamburger stand called McDonald’s into a global empire, although the original restaurant wasn’t even his idea. In fact, Kroc co-opted the vision of brothers Dick and Mac McDonald, who had dreamed up the fast food concept and made it a reality. In 1954, the McDonalds were running a popular burger stand in San Bernardino. Everything was going smoothly, until Kroc showed up.
Despite a light touch, “The Founder” is a feel-bad movie. Its central character is a guy with questionable ethics who nevertheless wins big by doing bad things to good people.
Directed by John Lee Hancock (“The Blind Side,” “Saving Mr. Banks”), the fact-based tale is expertly crafted. Michael Keaton plays Kroc, making the most of his ability to deliver charisma with a dose of creepiness. (It’s the eyebrows.) The story opens as Kroc, a traveling milkshake-machine salesman, is hawking his wares to drive-in restaurants in the Midwest. This isn’t his first get-rich-quick scheme: Like some of his others — the Fold-a-Nook collapsible kitchen-table-and-bench combo, for example — this one isn’t going so well. He’s on the road constantly, checking in occasionally with his lonely wife (Laura Dern) and entertaining himself at night with self-help records.
With few sales, he’s shocked to learn from his secretary that one restaurant has put in an order for six machines. That can’t possibly be right, he thinks. Crazier still, when he calls the place — McDonald’s — the man on the other end of the phone says, “Better make it eight.” Kroc immediately drives halfway across the country to see what’s up.
Mac McDonald (John Carroll Lynch) turns out to be a gregarious, big-hearted galoot, who gives Kroc a tour of his bustling burger joint and a blueprint for how the brothers came up with the idea of serving customers their food almost as quickly as they’ve ordered. His brother Dick (a conspicuously cleanshaven Nick Offerman), the savvier and more suspicious of the two, was the mastermind. Neither of the brothers bite when Kroc returns, urging them to, “Franchise, franchise, franchise.” The fastidious entrepreneurs worry about quality control. But when the fast-talking salesman tells them to “do it for your country,” they relent — putting Kroc in charge of the expansion.
Although “The Founder” is heavily sprinkled with business meetings and contract signings, the script (by Robert D. Siegel of “The Wrestler”) keeps things snappy and engaging for the most part. As the movie wears on, however, and as Kroc’s behavior becomes more reprehensible, the drama starts to grate.
It’s also a little wishy-washy, presenting a portrait of Kroc that’s critical, but also toothless. When the stress of dealing with Kroc’s aggressive business tactics sends Mac to the hospital, our hero — if that’s even the right word for him — shows up at his bedside with flowers and a blank check to buy them out. Keaton’s bumbling portrayal is more endearing than unseemly.
Moviegoers have grown accustomed to unsavory main characters. The antihero makes for good viewing, especially when we get to see what makes him tick. But “The Founder” isn’t really a character study so much as a capitalist procedural.
What are we supposed to take away from all this? Should we boycott McDonald’s? That seems strange, given that Kroc died in 1984, leaving the company in others’ hands. (Mac McDonald died in 1971; Dick, in 1998). In the end, “The Founder” is little more than a deflating reminder, as if we needed one, that the winner takes all, and integrity isn’t always the key to success.
PG-13. At area theaters. Contains brief strong language. 115 minutes.