I’ve said three or four times that John Lee Hancock‘s The Founder (Weinstein Co.) is one of the most fascinating ethical dramas I’ve seen in a long while, and that Michael Keaton‘s performance as Ray Kroc treads the line between opportunistic go-getterism and ruthless assholery with the skill of a mountain goat.
And now Variety‘s Owen Gleiberman has more or less said the same thing in this 12.17 essay:
“The Founder is a terrific movie, and it features Keaton at the height of his powers,” Gleiberman says.
“Ray Kroc, as presented, is a noodgy gadget salesman who isn’t going anywhere; at the start, he seems like a loser. But then, in 1954, he meets the McDonald brothers, Mac (John Carroll) and Dick (Nick Offerman), who’ve launched a highly popular burger stand in San Bernadino, not just by creating succulently tasty burgers but by replacing the old ’50s car-hop drive-in with a revolutionary new system. In their custom-built kitchen, everything is part of an assembly line, with burgers and fries manufactured en masse, at lightning speed, and each tasty component made to identical specifications.
“Ray sees how this restaurant — called McDonald’s — operates, and he takes in its clean family vibe, but he really sees the light when he looks at the picture on the wall of Mac and Dick’s office; it depicts a white McDonald’s with golden arches. In fact, the brothers have already built one just like it.
“Ray soaks all this in and has a vision: The McDonald’s concept can be multiplied — franchised — to a degree that’s unheard of. The brothers have made small attempts to expand, and failed, but Ray sees everything they did wrong. He gets them to go into business with him, opening new McDonald’s restaurants that he oversees and controls, and he becomes the driving entrepreneur of the company.
“The McDonald brothers, especially the persnickety Dick, are honorable men (they’re going to fight for the integrity of their milkshakes!), but the film’s richest irony is that they don’t, in fact, see the holy essence of McDonald’s the way that Ray does. After a while, they think he’s corrupting their concept, but in fact he’s fulfilling it. Their cautious honesty begins to look like quibbling. Ray turns McDonald’s into something they scarcely imagined and steals the company right out from under them.
“In The Founder, Kroc is portrayed as a ruthless hustler and back-stabber. He schemes and lies, he’s focused on success to the exclusion of everything else (including his marriage to a decent, long-suffering housewife played by Laura Dern), he guzzles whiskey, and though he knows how to work a room, he’s too antsy and selfish to pretend to be a nice guy.
“Yet if Ray is a jerk (and you could use a lot worse words), the essence of the movie is that Keaton, with that interior hum of his, makes him a likable jerk. It’s as if Ray hustles the audience too. Keaton’s performance is driven by his smart-mouth quizzicality, the buzz of his appetite. He’s like a Willy Loman who figures out how to win the lottery, and damned if anything is going to keep him from doing it.”