A consistently intelligent (or at least bright), coherently constructed comedy that is on occasion a rather pointed critique of the American education system in the…
“The Founder” is mesmerized by its hero, McDonald’s chain founder Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton), but horrified by how he built his empire. That kind of ambivalence is great; in fact it’s a hallmark of good drama. But there are too many moments when “The Founder” becomes a business-drama variant of that war film problem identified by Francois Truffaut: it’s hard to make a truly anti-war film because war is inherently cinematic, and when you show it, people get swept up in the action anyway.
The bloodshed in the business drama is (usually) figurative, but the conflict is still thrilling, and so a lot of films about business end up grappling with Truffaut's war movie problem. “Glengarry Glen Ross,” “Wall Street,” “Wolf of Wall Street,” “Boiler Room” and the like are filled with the kinds of people you'd cross a room to avoid, yet you hear their lines quoted by businesspeople and b-school students as inspirational texts, probably because it's more fun to identify with the bastard who gets things done than the people who suffer from his actions. Ray Kroc is a local Chamber of Commerce version of Gordon Gekko. Keaton plays him with such laser-beam focus that even when the movie is appalled by Ray's shady maneuvers, it still leans on his every word.
As written by Robert Siegel (“The Wrestler”), directed by John Lee Hancock (“The Rookie”) and acted by Keaton, Kroc at first seems a riff on “Death of a Salesman” hero Willy Loman, or one of the real estate strivers in “Glengarry Glen Ross” who say they can't close deals because the leads are weak. We see him cold-calling restaurant owners and trying to sell them mixers out of the trunk of his car, then returning home to get pep talks from his wife Ethel (Laura Dern). By the end of the tale, he’s become the Charles Foster Kane of hamburgers—a bland megalomaniac surrounded by enablers and worshipers, ruling a corporation that he built by exploiting the optimism and trust of McDonald’s originators Richard and Maurice McDonald (Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch), who were bought out at a too-low price and robbed of future royalties after accepting a handshake agreement that Kroc never honored.
The film’s depiction of the McDonald brothers is devastating, far and away the strongest thing in “The Founder.” Every stop on their road to ruin is flagged and catalogued, from their decision to let Kroc expand into other states to their capitulation to production and profit-making ideas that they fear will turn the restaurant from a profitable but self-contained labor of love into a purveyor of unfrozen beef patties and powdered shakes. The movie does such a good job of showing the brothers’ bond as a relationship founded on can-do spirit that when Kroc enters the picture, lavishing praise on their idea for a “fast food” restaurant with an assembly line service model, you can see why they’d quit resisting his vision of a centralized franchise.