Behind every great fortune is a crime. That’s the underlying theme of “The Founder,” a juicy, acrid bio-pic about Ray Kroc, the man who put a McDonald’s restaurant on every other corner in America.
Torn between admiration and horror, John Lee Hancock’s film gives Michael Keaton one of his trickiest roles to date, as Kroc, and the movie stands as that rare beast, a business melodrama, with the plot turning on contractual betrayals and corporate chicanery that reflect for better and worse on the principle players. It only sounds dull if you’re not a grown-up; in fact, “The Founder” is close to a great American distress story.
That Kroc’s last name is not McDonald was and is very much the point. “The Founder” begins in 1954 as the not terribly successful Midwestern milkshake-mixer salesman gets a big order from a burger stand in California and drives out on a whim to see what’s what. There he finds two brothers, Dick and Mac McDonald (Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch), who have quietly and efficiently revolutionized the drive-up restaurant into a walk-up Valhalla. They sell only three things: burgers, fries, soft drinks. The food comes ridiculously fast — in 1954 this is a novelty — and it’s good. Ray wants in.
Kroc isn’t the first person to franchise a McDonald’s, but he sees the big picture, and when he looks at Dick’s model of a restaurant with golden arches, he starts twitching with the fervor of a true believer. With a script written by Robert D. Siegel (“The Wrestler,” “Big Fan”), “The Founder” has a finely tuned ear for the lyricism of the entrepreneur. A flashback sequence in which the brothers relate how they laid out the design for their perfect kitchen on a tennis court is a bravura moment — you get hungry just listening to them.
Kroc’s an entrepreneur, too, but one obsessed with winning rather than simply turning out a good burger. He goes back to the Midwest, starts sprouting McDonald’s franchises like mushrooms, and while the brothers reap the benefits, they’re increasingly left out of the loop; it’s only a matter of time before they’re lunch meat. Keaton bites into the role with gusto — his Ray Kroc knows he’s a crock, a Willy Loman who got lucky, but he lives for the hustle and he only respects those who value it too. Not his sad, social-climbing wife (Laura Dern), but certainly Harry Sonneborn (B.J. Novak), who shows Kroc that the real money’s not in burgers but in real estate, and maybe Joan (Linda Cardellini), who’s married to a business partner (Patrick Wilson) but is drawn to the guy with the biggest vision.
“There’s nothing more common than an unsuccessful man with talent.” Ray Kroc said that in life and he says it in the movie, and “The Founder” — its title dripping with the special sauce of irony — acknowledges that the only reason Dick and Mac McDonald lost control of their brilliant idea is that they were better restaurateurs and worse businessmen than the shark across the table. They had the recipe, though, and they had the name. “It’s the sound of America,” Ray crows about that name toward the end of the movie, knowing that no one would ever, ever want to eat at Kroc’s.
“The Founder” is a solid, smart, worthwhile film and the only remaining mystery is why the Weinstein Company is burying it with a quiet January release rather than pushing its much-loved star into the awards race with the usual fanfare. Does the company not want to release a movie (semi-)critical of an American business titan in the era of Trump’s ascension? Are they afraid of a red state pushback? They shouldn’t be.
The movie regards its hero with the wary awe reserved for apex predators, and it invites us to wonder whether it’s possible to mass-market quality or merely the idea of it. “The Founder” is fast food for thought.
Directed by John Lee Hancock. Written by Robert D. Siegel. Starring Michael Keaton, Nick Offerman, John Carroll Lynch, Laura Dern, Linda Cardellini. At Boston Common, Kendall Square, West Newton, suburbs. 115 minutes. PG-13 (brief strong language).Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.