Review: McDonald's bio-drama 'The Founder' serves up queasy American Dream

Michael Keaton as Ray Kroc

Michael Keaton as Ray Kroc Daniel McFadden

“Do it for your country. Do it for America.”

These are the words Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton) uses to convince the McDonald brothers (John Carroll Lynch and Nick Offerman) to turn their burger joint into a nationwide franchise in The Founder. If you know anything about how McDonald’s came to be the ubiquitous presence we now know it as — or even if you’ve seen other movies about small-business owners being talked into something by an outsider — you can likely guess how that turns out for them.

A traveling salesman and would-be entrepreneur who’s spent his life in search of a golden opportunity, Kroc has finally found one — and it comes in the form of two arches. Later, he’ll describe his vision of what McDonald’s might one day become as “the new American church,” one that’s open seven days a week.

Since we venerate ambition in America as much as we venerate convenience, Kroc is the hero of this story. And like a lot of movies released in the last few months, The Founder is difficult not to view through the lens of current events: John Lee Hancock’s film tells of a businessman’s ascent to fame and fortune via highly questionable means. Taking place in the 1950s, it’s another silver-screen reminder that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Kroc’s voice is nasally but assured as he makes his pitch to the skeptical bros, as though he buys everything he’s selling but knows, in his heart of hearts, that his potential business partners don’t. At least not yet.

Dick and Mac are purists, you see — their innovative fast-food restaurant in San Bernardino, California is a true original, and so they balk at the idea of opening new locations. How can they ensure the purity of their vision when it spreads to Illinois, Ohio, and beyond? Kroc, who’s somewhere between snake-oil salesman and motivational speaker, assures them that this time will be different.

At their peril, they relent. And for a good long while, The Founder makes this seem like a good thing. This is the American Dream, after all, so never mind that some sleep through it and others consider it a nightmare: Two cars in every garage and a McDonald’s in every town is the natural way of things. Kroc’s wife (Laura Dern, underused) may feel neglected, and the McDonalds may be wary of their new business partner, but surely they’re all just missing the forest for the trees?

You might even find yourself agreeing with Kroc in the conflicts that follow: The brothers are willful and stubborn, constantly passing over opportunities to expand their business over minor quibbles like sponsorships and milkshake ingredients.

But then Kroc goes all Jesse Eisenberg-in-The Social Network on them and you realize that, in a way, you’ve been watching a villain’s origin story all along. Kroc is both protagonist and antagonist, success story and cautionary tale. If we bought what he was selling despite any initial misgivings — or even despite knowing where all this is headed — that only proves his point.

The title cards preceding the end credits, which inform us of everyone’s fate, only serve to reinforce that notion. Watching The Founder turns out to be not unlike eating McDonald’s: You’ll feel satisfied in the moment and queasy afterward.

The Founder
Director: John Lee Hancock
Starring: Michael Keaton, Nick Offerman, John Carroll Lynch, Linda Cardellini
Rated: PG-13
Theater: Now playing at area theaters