The drama of the well-made biopic “The Founder” comes down to two dueling versions of the proverbial American dream, told through the lens of a business that’s often shorthand for America itself: McDonald’s. It began as a family business, which is one version, and it ends up as the global phenomenon we know today. Bickering over the presence of a Coca-Cola advertisement on a sign signifies how quaint the true founders were, and how far from its founding principles it is today.
Michael Keaton stars as Ray Kroc, a peripatetic salesman always chasing the next big thing, from a kitchen gadget mocked as a “Murphy bed for your kitchen” to an 8-cup milkshake maker. When a sweet little California restaurant puts in a shockingly large order, Kroc drives across the country to see this McDonald’s in person.
The highlight of the film occurs when Kroc takes the McDonald’s brothers out to dinner, and listens to their story of how they developed a restaurant with food that is so very fast. The brothers are portrayed by two fantastic actors, Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch, and it’s simply fascinating to witness how they maximized their process, rehearsing it on a tennis court with their staff. Also, the viewer becomes invested in this restaurant as the brainchild of these two men, and not the man who begs them to let him franchise their idea, Kroc.
Keaton is a fast-talking powerhouse throughout, and the film is strong because it is also ambiguous. Even though we suspect that, since the film is called “The Founder” (singular) but we’ve met two men named McDonald, some dirty dealings could be on the horizon, Keaton and his costars keep it interesting. The McDonald’s brothers can be difficult, and sometimes Kroc seems like a salt-of-the-earth hard worker. And sometimes he doesn’t.
There could be many different responses to Kroc’s brand of ambition, and even some ironic echoes in today’s world. The screenwriters might not have intended Keaton’s vicious description of himself as “winning” to be quite as pointed as it now comes across, but his character seems very real in that he is believably unsympathetic.
This film is well paced for a story relying on a good bit of explanation about real estate holdings and other business matters, but I learned just enough to make me feel smart about the origins of McDonald’s. It also helps that there’s the built-in spoiler for anyone watching the film; we know how the whole business enterprise ends. A lesser-known subject might not have worked as well for a true story treatment.
Kroc’s relationship with his wife adds dimension to his character, and she is nicely underplayed by Laura Dern. Her complaints fill in a great deal about Kroc’s pattern of behavior. Even more telling is the new woman who catches his eye, the always-welcome Linda Cardellini, playing a female more suited to his speed of ambition.
“The Founder” is not the kind of movie you breathlessly insist everyone watch, but I cannot think of anyone who wouldn’t find it interesting. People ask me all the time to recommend nonviolent movies, and now I have a solid option. You’ll see nothing happen, good or bad, that will keep you up at night, but you will find yourself thinking about it after it’s over.