Michael Keaton has used his jittery intensity to play sympathetic villains in the past, in films such as Beetlejuice and Desperate Measures, but he’s never been as odious as he is in director John Lee Hancock’s The Founder. Keaton’s Ray Kroc is an aw-shucks avatar of American capitalism, the kind of guy who will reach out to shake your hand and then rip your arm right out of its socket.
As the film opens in 1954, Kroc is a balding, Dale Carnegie-worshipping small-time operator still searching for the magic gizmo or idea that will make him rich. He finds it in a family-owned hamburger stand in San Bernadino, California, where brothers Mac (John Carroll Lynch) and Dick McDonald (Nick Offerman) have essentially invented the fast-food industry. Kroc convinces the reluctant brothers to let him franchise their business, though the differences in their values signals trouble from the start: Kroc is enamored of the brothers’ wholesome-sounding name, streamlined menu, and “Spee-dee” system of assembling and serving food, but he’s blind to the importance of the high-quality ingredients they see as one of their main draws.
Though nominally in charge, the brothers quickly lose their power as Kroc builds a business empire of his own around the McDonald’s brand, ignoring Mac and Dick’s orders whenever he finds them inconvenient. When Kroc proposes that McDonald’s can save money by making milkshakes with water and a powdered mix instead of ice cream and milk, the brothers are horrified. Dick barks at Kroc, “We are not interested in a milkshake that contains no milk!” At which point Kroc sends the mix to every McDonald’s franchise.
The Founder leaves open important questions, like whether Kroc was even responsible for the towering success of the chain he stole from the brothers and then claimed to have founded. Were his relentless salesmanship, his gift for branding, and the methods he developed of controlling and standardizing his franchises responsible for the chain’s triumph? Or was Kroc’s financial manager, Harry J. Sonneborn (B.J. Novak), the real brains behind the business? According to the film, Kroc was barely breaking even until Sonneborn convinced him that he should be in the real estate business, not the burger business, shifting his focus to owning the land the franchises are built on.
If we’re not sure how he got there, though, Keaton leaves no question as to how Kroc reacted to his gargantuan success. The actor narrows his eyes and clips his speech to show Kroc growing more confident as he grows rich, shedding what little consideration or humility he once had as his ego swells along with his bank account. In one chilling scene, he erupts at Mac McDonald, telling him he’s too nice to succeed in business. Business, he says, leaning into his speakerphone with venomous intensity, is “dog eat dog, rat eat rat. If my competitor was drowning, I’d go over and put a hose right in his mouth.” It’s a powerful performance marooned in a wishy-washy story.
The rest of the cast is as accomplished as Keaton, but the script hobbles them, continually making the same few points in slightly different ways. Offerman’s signature mix of barely contained outrage and disdain make Dick a noble if doomed hero, but his repeated showdowns with Kroc on the phone become a bit repetitive. Laura Dern, as Ray’s neglected first wife, has little to do other than gaze bleakly out from various shadowy locations, while Patrick Wilson, as an admirer of Kroc’s who becomes one of his franchisers only to have Kroc steal his wife, Joan (Linda Cardellini), out from under his nose, keeps smiling bravely while giving Joan and Kroc the side eye. Joan remains a cipher, first appearing as the ultimate piece of arm candy, then giving Kroc one of his best cost-cutting ideas (that milkshake mix) before basically vanishing from the film, leaving audiences without a clue as to what her marriage was like or whether she continued to help out with the business.
The story of a former laughingstock turned business mogul who used patriotic hokum and outright lies to create a myth around himself and his business is prototypically American, and the McDonald brothers’ losing battle could be seen as a stirring early bugle call to the now-widespread campaign against the empty calories and corporate homogenization that have become synonymous with fast food. But these are conclusions we’re left to draw for ourselves in The Founder, a film that fails to connect the dots.