“The Founder” is a wink of a title. It’s about Ray Kroc, the man who turned a California hamburger stand called McDonald’s into a global empire, although the original restaurant wasn’t even his idea.
In fact, Kroc co-opted the vision of brothers Dick and Mac McDonald, who had dreamed up the fast-food concept and made it a reality. In 1954, the McDonalds were running a popular burger stand in San Bernardino. Everything was going smoothly, until Kroc showed up.
Despite a light touch, “The Founder” is a feel-bad movie. Its central character is a guy with questionable ethics who wins big by doing bad things to good people.
Directed by John Lee Hancock, the fact-based tale is expertly crafted. Michael Keaton plays Kroc, making the most of his ability to deliver charisma with a dose of creepiness. (It’s the eyebrows.)
The story opens as Kroc, a traveling milkshake-machine salesman, is hawking his wares to drive-in restaurants. With few sales, he’s shocked one day to learn from his secretary that one restaurant has put in an order for six machines. That can’t be right, he thinks.
Crazier still, when he calls the place — McDonald’s — the man on the other end of the phone says, “Better make it eight.” Kroc immediately drives halfway across the country to see what’s up.
Mac McDonald (John Carroll Lynch) turns out to be a gregarious, big-hearted galoot, who gives Kroc a tour of his bustling burger joint and the blueprint for how the brothers came up with the idea of serving customers their food almost as quickly as they’ve ordered. His brother, Dick (Nick Offerman), the savvier and more suspicious of the two, was the mastermind.
Neither of the brothers bite when Kroc returns, urging them to “franchise, franchise, franchise.” The entrepreneurs worry about quality control. But when the fast-talking salesman tells them to “do it for your country,” they relent, putting Kroc in charge of the expansion.
Although “The Founder” is heavily sprinkled with business meetings and contract signings, the script keeps things snappy and engaging. As the movie wears on, however, and as Kroc’s behavior becomes more reprehensible, the drama starts to grate.
The film presents a portrait of Kroc that’s critical, but also toothless. Moviegoers have grown accustomed to unsavory main characters. But “The Founder” isn’t really a character study so much as a capitalist procedural.
In the end, “The Founder” is little more than a deflating reminder, as if we needed one, that the winner takes all, and integrity isn’t always the key to success.
Rated PG-13 for brief strong language. 1:55. Fayette, Frankfort, Georgetown, Hamburg, Winchester.