Michael Keaton is Both Golden and Arch in McDonald’s Origin Story


the_founder_posterWhen it comes to business, no one deserves a break today. That’s the thinking key to McDonald’s CEO Ray Kroc, as portrayed by Michael Keaton in the new film The Founder. Keaton is the essential secret sauce in this surprisingly agreeable chronicle of Kroc’s success in globally franchising McDonald’s restaurants. It is a highly dubious and morally reprehensible success, as it unfolds to be yet another tale of a charming go-getter smart enough to piggyback upon and then hijack someone else’s innovation.

The Founder makes its dumbing-down of history so darn watchable, it almost doesn’t matter that it thinks we’re stupid.

The revolution in fast food that McDonald’s spearheaded cannot be underestimated. The film’s greatest pleasure, aside from Keaton’s magnetic performance, is The Founder‘s ground-floor re-creations and explanations of how the businesses true founders’ trial and error in streamlining food service ushered in fast food as we know it. Today, it’s hard to imagine a world where hamburgers and french fries being served super quickly in paper cartons and greasy bags en masse was unheard of, but Keaton’s hilariously perplexed reaction in the moment when he’s is first served his thirty-five cent McDonald’s order says it all. “What’s this?”, pointing to the bag. “Your order!”, replies the jovial counter jockey. “But I just ordered it…”. “And now it’s here!”

Keaton's Kroc can't sell the five-shake machine at the start of THE FOUNDER.

Keaton’s Kroc can’t sell the five-shake machine at the start of THE FOUNDER.

The Founder falls short of being a great film, but it is nonetheless a very good one. Like Hidden Figures, it makes its dumbing-down of history and systematic good-versus-bad core construct so darn watchable, it almost doesn’t matter that it thinks we’re stupid. Director John Lee Hancock has spent most of his career in this arena, handily getting away with it. We may complain about Saving Mr. Banks, The Blind Side, The Alamo, and The Rookie, but we have little trouble watching, even engaging with them and their various historical fictions.

By painting the original McDonald brothers, Dick (Nick Offerman) and Mac (John Carroll Lynch), in a sympathetic and even upstanding light, the movie handily manages to serve up moral food for thought, even as all the actual food, no matter who’s running McDonald’s at whatever point, isn’t great. The Brothers, per The Founder, are the model of good old fashioned American ingenuity, seeing a niche and then honestly working to fill it. They shift the outmoded teen-bedraggled drive-up diner to a family friendly neighborhood staple. Food, folks and fun, circa 1951.

The McDonald brothers, Mac (John Carroll Lynch) and Dick (Nick Offerman) exude decency... and calories.

The McDonald brothers, Mac (John Carroll Lynch) and Dick (Nick Offerman) exude decency… and calories.

The McDonald brothers newfangled walk-up burger stand may be the dawn of the modern scourge that is fast food, but doggone it, they did it right. They refused to cheap out on food ingredients and things like milk and ice cream in milkshakes. Dismissing their version of McDonald’s, something they lost control of as it wormed all over the U.S. and then the world, would be like blaming the original Star Wars for allowing Battlefield Earth. So says this movie.

With Hancock and his cast so handily depicting the initial innovation of McDonald’s, the first half of The Founder, in which we get to know Keaton’s Kroc when he’s still a hungry milkshake machine vendor, is admittedly a lot more appealing than the second half, when Kroc rises to power and slowly but surely super-sizes his control. Laura Dean is Kroc’s long suffering wife, Ethel; Linda Cardellini is Joan, the femme fatale who catches his eye with her piano playing and artificial milkshake packets. Patrick Wilson is her husband, Rollie.

Period detail is impressive throughout, capturing the necessary early-to-mid 1950s vibe. But from beginning to end, this is Michael Keaton’s stage, showcasing his mischievous edge to slick perfection. Even as he deconstructs the American Dream right before our eyes, defeating “the good capitalism” for the bad, we cannot stop watching him. Like the golden arches themselves, his Ray Kroc proves an irresistibly greasy subject.