Following a pair of dynamite performances in 2014’s Birdman and 2015’s Spotlight – both of which received an Academy Award for Best Picture – Michael Keaton remains at the top of his game with his portrayal of McDonald’s mastermind Ray Kroc in The Founder. The latest from director John Lee Hancock charts the fast-talking businessman’s journey from traveling salesman to fast food mogul, and doesn’t shy away from the trail of broken promises and shady business practices left in his wake.
The year is 1954, and Ray’s journey across the Midwest peddling a five-spindle Multimixer to drive-in owners isn’t exactly paying the bills, but when his secretary (Kate Kneeland) tells him a San Bernardino restaurant has ordered six units for a single location, Ray hits the road to find out what all the fuss is about. He’s flabbergasted when he meets the McDonald brothers, Dick (Nick Offerman) and Mac (John Carroll Lynch), whose unconventional ideas – including a four-item menu, homemade condiment applicators and a kitchen meticulously designed for maximum efficiency – have transformed their hamburger stand into a local sensation.
“It’s revolutionary,” Ray tells his wife (Laura Dern) when he returns from the road, and it’s not long before he’s back in San Bernardino with a pitch to franchise the McDonald’s brand. The brothers are skeptical at first, but Ray’s rousing sales pitch – where he equates the restaurant to “the new American church” – finally wins them over. Eager to get started, Ray barely glances at the contract before agreeing to their terms, a decision which will ultimately come back to haunt everyone involved.
After opening a series of locations across the Midwest and enjoying his newfound celebrity as the public face of the company, Ray is dismayed to learn that he’s nearly out of money, thanks to the paltry 1.4% of net profits stipulated in his contract. Ray lacks the capital to continue driving expansion of the franchise, and his current rate of return isn’t enough to keep him afloat for much longer, but Dick and Mac refuse to renegotiate his deal. Frustrated with his disintegrating financials and the lengthy approval process required to make any changes or alterations to his stores, Ray opts for an unorthodox new strategy that will keep him in the public eye, generating an upfront revenue stream and give him more control over his locations – while boxing out the brothers completely.
Offerman is superb as the ill-tempered architect of the McDonald brothers’ prosperity, and Lynch balances the scale by painting Mac as warm, friendly and somewhat hapless, constantly making excuses for Ray’s transgressions. Other supporting actors are given short shrift, however, including B.J. Novak as a forward-thinking financial advisor, Patrick Wilson as an ambitious restaurant owner and Linda Cardellini as his equally enterprising wife. Everyone is fine, they’re just all given very little to do beyond advancing the plot, and it would have been nice to see a bit more development for each of them.
But The Founder is definitely Keaton’s show, and his engaging, energetic performance endears the audience to Ray, which presents something of a moral conundrum as we watch this once-decent man be overcome by the specters of fame and greed. It’s not enough that Ray has gone from the brink of bankruptcy to more wealth than he ever imagined – whether it’s the name of the company or the pretty young wife of a franchisee, Ray always wants more. His methodology ranges from dubious to downright horrifying, yet Keaton brings the character to life with such vigor and charisma that we continue to be enthralled and fascinated through every unspeakable act he commits, which rings especially true in our current political climate.
There’s something about our culture that allows us – or perhaps causes us – to put successful businessmen on a pedestal above the rest of us, while downplaying the corruption and misdeeds that were responsible for their success, and The Founder illustrates that dichotomy to great effect. There’s no denying that Ray is a terrible human being with an off-kilter sense of morality, and yet by the end of his journey to the top of the (fast) food chain, he still emerges as the triumphant hero, which is likely to leave audiences feeling conflicted as they exit the theater.