The story of McDonald’s is as American as that fast-food restaurant’s version of apple pie—a dubious, deep-fried log of chemically sweetened goo. The business was started by two brothers, Dick and Mac McDonald, who brought production-line efficiency to their small San Bernadino hamburger stand. Emphasizing consistency and American values, the McDonalds were fleeced by a middling salesman who transformed their stand-alone burger joint into the biggest chain in the country.
That salesman, Ray Kroc, is played by Michael Keaton in The Founder. When we meet him, Kroc’s a down-on-his-heels traveling salesman, but once he lays eyes on the brothers’ booming business, he decides their speedy service is the niftiest idea he’s ever seen. He talks Dick and Mac (Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch) into letting him franchise the place, then somehow turns it into the massive behemoth we all regret eating at.
The movie avoids some obvious routes, like that of an aw-shucks space-age fable of business, gumption, and the American dream. Nor is it a sharp slice of invective that takes down the corporate fat cat who served unhealthy yet convenient sustenance to billions. This is to The Founder’s credit, but it’s a weird, mostly unsatisfying watch. The movie seems totally unsure how to handle Kroc, a puzzling phantom of a character who doesn’t act particularly greedy, but is nevertheless pretty intent on fucking over the McDonalds brothers.
The Founder raises more questions than it answers, which is maybe the point. How did the hapless Kroc’s luck change so drastically for the better? How did the McDonalds boys utterly fail to protect themselves? And how should we feel about a man who got everything he ever wanted by ripping off his business partners and screwing over his long-suffering wife (Laura Dern)? That last question is the most interesting, but there’s not enough meat in The Founder to make it one worth thinking about.