Directed by John Lee Hancock (Saving Mr. Banks, The Blind Side), The Founder stars Michael Keaton as Ray Kroc, a 52-year-old, struggling milkshake machine salesman who is initially presented as a heroic underdog before gradually being revealed as the film’s true villain. It’s a masterful unravelling of character and the quintessentially American myth of the self-made man, made possible not only by Hancock’s canny direction and Robert Siegel’s meticulously crafted, Oscar-worthy screenplay, but also by Keaton’s utterly brilliant performance. The actor’s slightly demonic charisma makes him perfectly suited to play a man who took credit for founding the world’s largest restaurant chain.
In The Founder’s opening, 1950s set scenes we see Ray visiting a series of small town American drive-in restaurants to deliver a stirring sales pitch extolling the benefits of the Prince Castle Multi-Mixer milkshake machine. The salesman’s powerful rhetoric fails to persuade and he is met with nothing but rejection. When he calls his wife Ethel (Laura Dern) from a motel one night to assure her that everything is going well it fails to convince her or us. Things are looking pretty bleak for Ray until he receives an unusually large Multi-Mixer order from a small hamburger restaurant in San Bernardino named McDonald’s. Convinced there’s been an error, Ray drives out to Southern California to meet the restaurant’s co-owners Dick (Nick Offerman) and Mac (John Carroll Lynch) McDonald.
What Ray sees when he arrives leaves him stunned. In place of the hot rods, loud music and rowdy teenagers who usually frequent such establishments there is a line of respectable looking people and families. Even better, instead of waiting thirty minutes for his hamburger, fries and soda Ray waits just thirty seconds. Recognizing the franchise potential immediately, Ray takes the brothers out to dinner to propose a partnership. They’re hesitant at first but Ray wins them over with a rousingly patriotic speech, explaining how their restaurant “can be the new American church”, a wholesome place that offers average Americans spiritual and physical nourishment every day of the week instead of just on Sundays.
Still, Ray struggles initially to make his dream a reality. It’s easy to empathize with the salesman as we watch him strain to keep a smile on his face while country club friends mock his latest attempt sell them on the next big thing and bankers who’ve heard his shtick too many times before turn down his loan applications. Your heart goes out to the guy when you see him kneeling in the dirt at the site of his first McDonald’s franchise quietly pleading for it all to work out this time, for it not to be another failure in a life made up of little else. When his strategy of recruiting struggling salesman like himself as franchisees proves successful you feel glad, but as his ego grows and his respect for the McDonald brothers shrinks with each new restaurant opening it slowly becomes clear that Ray isn’t the film’s David. He’s Goliath, if Goliath won at the end.
A more traditional approach to this material would have the tragically wronged brothers who rose from poverty to start their own successful business only to see it stolen out from under them at its center. By choosing to focus on the loathsome but somehow still likeable jerk who stole it from them, The Founder can, like Adam McKay’s The Big Short and Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, be a little more subversive in its exploration of American capitalism and what it truly takes to succeed in such a system.