America romanticizes the entrepreneur, celebrating those who have seemingly made good on this land’s promise of wealth and pulled themselves up by following their own path. Genius plays second fiddle to tenacity; anyone, we tell ourselves, can make it big with grit. The level of truth this story contains is debatable. However, it is a persistent tale that remains firmly lodged in the back corners of this country’s psyche.
Director John Lee Hancock tells the story of an unsatisfied man who works his way from the middle class into the ranks of America’s wealthiest in his latest film, “The Founder,” starring Michael Keaton as Ray Kroc, the man responsible for the transformation of McDonald’s fast food franchise into the global corporation it is today. But it’s no feel-good tale: “The Founder” is a stark film portraying Kroc as a self-centered salesman who steals McDonald’s from its originators.
Keaton is superb as Kroc, delivering an excellent performance that further solidifies his place amongst Hollywood’s greatest stars. His character is introduced as an aw-shucks milkshake machine salesman and reveals himself by the end to be a vicious kingpin who thinks only of himself. He achieves his goals, yes, but only through manipulation, lies and intimidation. Behind his hammy smile ticks a brain wholly focused on the accumulation of wealth and power.
Kroc did not found the McDonald’s brand, despite his assertions to the contrary, nor was he responsible for the restaurant’s innovations, which created the fast-food industry as it’s known today. The company was in fact created by the McDonald's brothers, two tirelessly inventive young men who journeyed to Hollywood during the first half of the 20th century. When the film industry careers they dreamed failed to materialize, the brothers entered the restaurant business where they found both fulfillment and moderate success – until they opened McDonald’s, a small hamburger stand in San Bernardino, California. After several setbacks, the business flourished; its commitment to speed and quality drawing crowds day after day.
Dick McDonald (Nick Offerman) and his brother Mac (John Carroll Lynch) are humble, plainspoken men – Kroc’s opposites. They hold transparency and quality above all else; under their control, McDonald’s did not grow due to lack of vision. It remained a single restaurant so that its creators could ensure their business remained committed to honest, community-focused service. Both Offerman and Lynch are exceptional in their portrayals of Dick and Mac. Offerman retains the guarded, near-silent demeanor of his most famous character, Ron Swanson. However, the grim stares and furrowed brow employed in “Parks and Recreation” to great comedic effect are now both sorrowful and serious in his role of an upright man tricked by the unscrupulous Kroc. Lynch, a character actor most well-known for his role as an emotionless serial killer in David Fincher’s 2007 drama “Zodiac,” is simply wonderful: Mac is the film’s heart, and Lynch imbues each of his scenes with warmth and kindness.
“The Founder” features a fantastic supporting cast: Linda Cardellini stars as Kroc’s hyper-capable secretary, Laura Dern appears as Kroc’s despondent wife and B.J. Novak is suitably slimy as Harry J. Sonneborn, an accomplice of Kroc’s. A movie with few faults, “The Founder” stands out amid this winter’s other, lackluster offerings.