Against a black background, the white words “Based on a true story” fade on the screen. “The Founder” slowly fades in, replacing the title card. The audience is introduced to a close-up frame of Ray Kroc, played by Michael Keaton. He is staring directly at the audience delivering a sales pitch. Kroc refuses to blink. His voice is steady, smooth, and perhaps a bit too unwavering. “It’s all economics,” he whispers in his sales pitch. His voice is in a lull, like a predator about to go for the kill. “Do you follow my logic?”
“Nah, thanks anyways.”
The prospective client, the owner of a small drive-in diner, is not interested in buying whatever Kroc is selling.
Before going on to found The McDonald’s Corporation, Ray Kroc was a traveling salesman selling the Prince Castle Multimixer, an expensive milkshake mixer that held large quantities of ice cream and blended faster than any other blender on the market. For drive-in diners, where speedy food delivery can make businesses thrive, Kroc believed his product would be a surefire success.
Ray Kroc is at the end of his rope. His first two inventions have failed miserably; his marriage to Ethel, played by the wonderful Laura Dern, is on the rocks. Kroc feels trapped in his middle-class existence.
Michael Keaton is an extraordinarily convincing performer. From the beginning of the film, the audience cannot help but empathize with Kroc’s relentless drive and ambition. At the start of his career, Michael Keaton was not profiled as a dramatic actor but rather as an effective comedian. From his iconic rendition of Tim Burton’s “Batman” to a career-defining performance in Alejandro G. Iñarritu’s “Birdman,” Keaton has continually proved his versatility, and, more importantly, his dramatic bent. When Keaton lost an Academy Award to Eddie Redmayne, a quick shot of him putting his Academy Award acceptance speech back into his pocket went viral. Since his Oscar defeat in 2015, Keaton has gradually taken on more dramatic, demanding roles. In 2015, he effortlessly led Tom McCarthy’s “Spotlight,” and opted to follow it with “The Founder.” Despite all obstacles, Keaton is finally on his way to getting the recognition he rightfully deserves. This film might just get him there.
Much like Keaton, Ray Kroc built his way to great success. Kroc first met the McDonald brothers, played by Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch, when they ordered six of his Multimixers. Kroc was amazed by Richard McDonald’s “Speedee Service System,” with food orders prepared in under one minute. Sensing his opportunity, Kroc gambles his life savings to enter a partnership with the McDonald brothers. The movie follows Kroc’s efforts to help the brothers franchise their restaurant, which ultimately results in a treacherous dispute over ownership of the company.
Director John Lee Hancock (“Saving Mr. Banks,” “The Blind Side”) and screenwriter Robert D. Siegel (“Big Fan,” “The Wrestler”) make use of a swift script and meditative set of frames to cut through the usual sentimentalism in biographical films. Instead, “The Founder” maintains a brutally savvy tempo that pushes through the usual formulas of idealization and condemnation. The film’s absolving ambiguity and piercing irony is sure to absorb audiences into the grimy fight for the ultimate burger empire.
By avoiding obvious characterizations, both Hancock and Keaton allow audiences to decide for themselves whether Kroc is a magnate or a predator. The film is careful to portray Kroc with nuance. At times, he might strike some viewers as a merciless giant, others as a middle-aged baby bursting with optimism.
The film cleverly sets up Ray’s struggle to resolve his identity. Enraptured, he discovers the McDonald brothers, and he realizes his own business acumen as he discerns the global potential of their little burger joint creates a vastly complex character. Themes of entrepreneurial capitalism and innovation resonate strongly, casting a light on an age obsessed with corporate expansion.
“The Founder” follows the tradition of epic tales about tycoons and their betrayal-infested struggles, such as “The Social Network,” and “There Will be Blood.” Michael Keaton is the undisputable anchor of the film, carrying the weight of an ambitious script. He succeeds in making the audience sympathize with and root for an unlikeable protagonist, much like Michael Fassbender did in “Steve Jobs” and Jake Gyllenhaal in “Nightcrawler.” At its core, “The Founder” takes a hard look at the American Dream. After the McDonald brothers sue Kroc for abusing his initial contract, Kroc runs into Richard McDonald, the brother who invented the system that would set McDonald’s apart. “You don’t have the guts to do what I did,” snarls Kroc.
Both brothers agreed.