115 min. | PG-13
What’s in a name? Quite a lot if your name is Ray Kroc, who smartly surmised no one would want to buy a burger from a place called Kroc’s. Still, even someone as visionary as he probably couldn’t have anticipated that someday a whopping 1% of the planet’s population would be fed every day by McDonald’s. Kroc wasn’t born to that name (so friendly-sounding!) but craftily maneuvered to make his own.
A fictionalized origin story (note the singular of the title), The Founder begins in 1954, when Kroc (Michael Keaton) was still a door-to-door salesman hawking industrial shake mixers at mom-and-pop restaurants. At night, in motel rooms across America, he works on his sales pitch, in between nips from a flask, taking pointers from a motivational record. Kroc dreams big, and believes in his ability to make those big dreams happen—a point further underscored when he ducks into a showing of On the Waterfront. There’s no “coulda been” in this future founder’s vocabulary.
In San Bernardino, he spies his next entrepreneurial opportunity at a burger stand run by the McDonald brothers. Kind-eyed Mac (John Carroll Lynch) welcomes Kroc into the kitchen to show off the marvel of assembly-line efficiency that his shrewder brother Dick (Nick Offerman) has engineered. Convinced of the restaurant’s franchise potential, Kroc wins the reluctant brothers over with a rousing pitch: “Do it for your country. McDonald’s can be the new American church.” It’s a chilling moment—pause to consider national obesity rates—and one of the few overt instances in which the script by Robert Siegel (The Wrestler) encourages the viewer to connect the dots between these historical events and the fast-food chain’s now-ubiquity.
Siegel and director John Lee Hancock (proficient in workmanlike films based on a true story, including Saving Mr. Banks and The Blind Side) mostly stick to a “and-then-this-happened” account of how savvy Kroc expanded the brand and edged the McDonald brothers out of the business. It’s an interesting, if not entirely engrossing story.
Nothing in the plotting of Kroc’s rise to power has the energy or insight as an early sequence that details how Dick lit upon his original kitchen layout—chalking it out on a tennis court, choreographing his fry cooks to pantomime production, erasing and starting over. That indeed is a zippy evocation of a mind consumed with problem-solving. There’s no equivalent in the depiction of Kroc, a figure who fills almost every frame of the film, yet remains stubbornly remote. An actor most at home playing devilish, Keaton’s got the Machiavellian shrug down cold. But neither he nor the filmmakers do much to illuminate what happens from brain to that bodily shrug.