'The Founder': Film Review

The quality-drama version of fast food.

Michael Keaton stars as Ray Kroc, the man who helped make McDonald's a billion-dollar brand, in the latest from director John Lee Hancock, maker of 'The Blind Side' and 'Saving Mr. Banks.'

And they say Americans don't do irony. The Founder is a dramatized account written by Robert Siegel (The Wrestler) of how traveling salesman Ray Kroc — played with bounce and oleaginous charm by Michael Keaton — gained control of the McDonald's brand and built an empire. The movie is practically deep-fried in knowingness, starting with the big stage wink that is the title itself. As many students of business and fans of Mark Knopfler's 2004 song "Boom, Like That" already know, Kroc "founded" McDonald's only in the sense that he literally found a burger stand in San Bernardino, Calif., run by two brothers named Dick and Mac McDonald, took over franchising their concept, and eventually wrested control of the business entirely.

By making this ethically challenged man the film's protagonist, director John Lee Hancock creates something a good shade or two darker than The Blind Side and Saving Mr. Banks, his more cheerful and wholesome previous efforts in true-life-inspired storytelling. However, Hancock's apparently irrepressible penchant for folksy Midwestern types and perky montages dilutes any cynicism or misanthropy that might have given this material the edginess it deserves.

The result is a wishy-washy take on both Kroc and McDonald's itself, which tries to play off its timidity as fairness, balance or some such. In fact, it plays more like a film that can't make up its mind whether it wants to be an exposé of Kroc's scheming, Cheese Burglar venality or a sly celebration of his capitalist chutzpah. No doubt, 50 years in the future, the industry will churn out biopics about Donald Trump that are just as tonally muddy and ideologically confused.

At least this work doesn't feature McDonald's as a producing entity in the opening credits, making it less beholden to the company it depicts than the Disney-produced Saving Mr. Banks, which revolved around the encounter between Walt Disney himself (rather white-washed in the hands of Tom Hanks) and P.L. Travers (played by Emma Thompson), the author of the novel Mary Poppins. Even so, The Founder is careful to avoid in any way offending the company, once famed for being highly litigious. McDonald's notably sued and won a case against British activists Helen Steel and David Morris for daring to distribute leaflets claiming the chain's products were unhealthy and destructive to the environment, although arguably in the long run the case only hurt the company with bad publicity.

Unlike, say, the documentaries McLibel and Super Size Me, this film takes pains to remind viewers that the brand was founded by the McDonald brothers with high-quality foodstuffs ("100 percent government-approved meat!"), produced to exacting quality-controlled standards yet made with incredible speed. Best not viewed on an empty stomach, this film abounds with shots of the castmembers and extras ecstatically sinking their teeth into juicy, paper-wrapped patties, resulting in slow-motion smiles that spread across faces as sunnily as those in any of the commercials for the chain made in the last 30 or 40 years.

What's most interesting is that Siegel's screenplay doesn't start with Mac and Dick McDonald (John Carroll Lynch and Nick Offerman), former Columbia Studio truck drivers who went into the food-service industry after WWII and who came up with a near-revolutionary "Speedy System" to streamline burger production. Instead, it starts with Kroc, the Chicago-reared son of Czech immigrants, who as the story begins is just over 50 and wearing out his tire rubber visiting greasy, teen-infested drive-in restaurants around the Midwest with bad service from roller-skating waitresses, hoping to talk owners and managers into buying a five-spindle Multi-Mixer for making milkshakes.

When Kroc's secretary June (Kate Kneeland, underused) reports that the McDonalds' stand in Southern California wants six — no, make it eight — mixers because their business is booming so fast, Ray gets in his Chevy and drives all the way down Route 66 to see what their secret is. It turns out there's no real secret in the secret sauce (at that point not yet invented). Under Dick's exacting eye and commitment to practice, the brothers have merely reduced the menu to the best-selling items and then worked out a way to make them as efficiently as possible, inspired by time-and-motion studies and assisted by homemade inventions, such as ray-gun-like dispensers for squirting just the right amount of ketchup and mustard onto a bun.

Via a long expository dialogue and edited in flashbacks, they explain how they assembled their workers on a tennis court, drew and redrew the kitchen with chalk and had the team perform a "burger ballet" — it's really more like miming than dancing, but whatever — to perfect the production process.

Entranced, and passionate about the food, Ray pitches woo to the McDonalds, begging for a chance to franchise their menu, system and branding elements such as Nick's beloved "Golden Arches" architectural design, which they tried at a failed branch in Phoenix.

With some trepidation, since some franchisees in the past failed to stick to the menu (they sold burritos in Sacramento — the horror!), the McDonalds agree. Ray starts his first one near his home in Illinois, raising capital by mortgaging his house without telling his long-suffering wife Ethel (Laura Dern, perhaps a shade too innately glamorous ever to be convincing as someone named Ethel). Their marriage has long been under strain due to Ray's frequent absences on the road. It's also implied that his controlled but constant drinking — he has a dainty hip flask always ready in his pocket — doesn't help.

Once Ray has begun to make a success of things, his eye is caught by Joan Smith (Linda Cardellini), the wife of one of his franchise-holders (Patrick Wilson). Joan is a svelte, younger blonde whose lack of baggage is signaled by her sparser dress sense, forming a contrast to Ethel's voluminous, high-maintenance New Look frocks and fussy, chintz-filled interior decoration. Like the perfect magician's assistant, Joan takes delight in a good, cost-cutting sleight of hand, as revealed in a scene where she turns Ray on to instant milkshake mix, a concoction that reduces the need for refrigeration bills and represents the ultimate betrayal of the McDonald brothers' purist vision.

It's around this point that the film switches from being a jolly romp about some hard-working food-service visionaries and becomes something more like a Faustian parable, with B.J. Novak taking the Mephistophelean role of Harry J. Sonneborn, a financial adviser who gets Kroc to see that the real power lies in controlling real estate, not the petty means of production — truly a postmodernist approach to capitalism and ultimately the key to the company's success. But the shift in register taxes Hancock, and his production team, and the jolliness they flood through the pacing, lighting and design doesn't recede at the same time the story itself shifts.

Keaton seems to have figured out long before everyone else that the tone is going to transmute swiftly, and it's impressive the way he ups the sleaze factor by subtle degrees early on. The better-dressed he gets, the more his soul rots and the deader his eyes become, like some evil clown version of Dorian Gray. Even the folksy way he says "Nope," full of finality and steel, becomes menacing, delivering it like a gun shot through a fluffy sweater. Of all the troubled, compromised and problematic characters Keaton has played in the course of his recent career resurgence, Ray Kroc, like a crocodile  — "but not spelled that way," per the song by Knopfler — may be the most disturbing.

Distributor: The Weinstein Company
Production companies: Faliro House Productions, FilmNation Entertainment, The Combine 

Cast: Michael Keaton, Nick Offerman, John Carroll Lynch, Laura Dern, Linda Cardellini, Patrick Wilson, B.J. Novak, Justin Randell Brooke
Director: John Lee Hancock
Screenwriter: Robert Siegel
Producers: Don Handfield, Jeremy Renner, Aaron Ryder
Executive producers: Glen Basner, Alison Cohen, Karen Lunder, Bob Weinstein, Harvey Weinstein, David C. Glasser, Christos V. Konstantakopoulus
Director of photography: John Schwartzman
Production designer: Michael Corenblith
Costume designer: Daniel Orlandi
Editor: Robert Frazen
Music: Carter Burwell
Casting: Ronna Kress
Sales: FilmNation

Rated PG-13, 115 minutes