The Founder Is an Acerbic, Uncomfortably Timely Bite of McDonald’s History

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Michael Keaton in The Founder. Photo: Daniel McFadden/The Weinstein Company

The title of the Ray Kroc biopic The Founder is mocking, acidic, a dig at the man who called himself the founder of McDonald’s but, as the movie dramatizes, founded zilch. What he actually did, of course, was no small feat. In the ‘50s, he took an ingeniously mechanized San Bernardino fast-food hamburger restaurant created by the McDonald brothers, Dick and Mac, and turned it into a franchising gold mine — no, make that a diamond mine. Or maybe a uranium mine, given what happened to the health of Americans.

Michael Keaton is sensational as Kroc, who begins the film selling cheap milkshake blenders with not much success. In his sleazy way he’s very likable: He listens to records by Norman Vincent Peale; he hustles like mad; and, as his upper body rocks from the waist, he sounds like the Beetlejuice who says, “What do I gotta do to make a deal with you kids?” He drives thousands of miles to San Bernardino and sells the brothers on the potential for McDonald’s to go national. Drive-in restaurants with waitresses in shorts and on roller skates are everywhere, but they’re slow and tend to attract seedy teenagers. A fast, wholesome, family-oriented place like McDonald’s, Kroc pitches, could be as much of an American institution as the church.

It’s hard to believe there was a time when McDonald’s wasn’t ubiquitous on the American landscape and its ultraefficient assembly-line model for making and serving food wasn’t the model. How innocent we were. In the early San Bernardino scenes, the first McDonald’s is shot in the dewy, bucolic style of a TV commercial. Children hold their burgers with reverence, savoring every bite. The choreography of the workers is positively lyrical. This fusion of factory and food service — in its sunny, postwar way — beautiful, like Henry Adams’s idea of the God in the machine.

You could almost believe that the McDonald’s corporation underwrote The Founder — until the tone of the movie shifts and the brothers realize that they’ve “let a fox into the henhouse.” It’s not that they’re angels: John Carroll Lynch’s Mac lacks imagination, while Nick Offerman’s Dick — the master architect of the system — is peevish and unwilling to compromise. (Offerman gives a one-note performance and that one note is perfect.) But when Keaton’s Kroc drops the Beetlejuice brio and becomes a grim capitalist predator who peddles cheap milkshake powder over actual ice cream, you’ll probably lose your appetite.

Crisply directed by John Lee Hancock from a script by Robert Siegel, The Founder misuses Laura Dern, who, as Kroc’s first wife, has to be a stick-in-the-mud, her usually delightful, wiggly mouth in permanent sag. At least Linda Cardellini gets the juicy part she deserves as Kroc’s second wife, Joan, who’s married to a franchisee (Patrick Wilson) but plainly has national aspirations. When she presents Kroc with the milkshake powder that will allow him to eliminate energy-sucking freezers from the chain, her eyes glitter. At least Joan ended up giving much of the Kroc fortune to charities (among them NPR and Poetry magazine), though she never managed to counter a corporation that would go on to become ground zero for obesity, cow-fart methane, and too many influential culinary ills to stomach.

Before the rise of Donald Trump, The Founder might have seemed a little on the nose, another corporate variation on What Makes Sammy Run? Now it has an eerie verisimilitude — fast-food kitchen-sink realism. We study Adams, Jefferson, and Hamilton in school. It’s time to consider another sort of Founding Father.

Review: The Founder Is Crisp, and All Too Timely