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An Oscar Contender Not to Forget: Michael Keaton’s Brilliantly Tricky and Winning Performance in ‘The Founder’

In the Hollywood awards race, the big liftoff moment that looms — the announcement of the Oscar nominations — is like a sculpture-in-progress that we get to see worked on in public. Each day brings another bit of sanding and chiseling — the Critics Choice Awards! The SAG nominations! The New York Film Critics Circle awards! The guilds, the critics’ groups (is there one in Boise yet?), the proliferating awards shows: Each one helps to hammer out and shape the final roster. You may think that some of these groups are irrelevant, but every little bit counts; the sheer repetition of names can turn into a drumbeat that becomes a fait accompli. (Once you’ve read “Emma Stone, Isabelle Huppert, Natalie Portman…” in 16 different places, it becomes harder and harder for anyone — including Academy members — to imagine a slate of Best Actress nominees that doesn’t include Emma Stone, Isabelle Huppert, etc.) Repetition becomes perception becomes reality.

In that light, the race for Best Actor already has a jam-packed pool of names, some of whom now feel like they’re crossing from the possible to the inevitable. Tom Hanks (astoundingly) is still a maybe, Ryan Gosling, who once looked like a not-so-sure, is starting to look like a more-sure-than-not, Casey Affleck is a lock, and Denzel Washington is inching up to lock status. But whichever of those contenders receives a nomination (or doesn’t), all are undeniably in the ring. They’re being talked about (in each case, with good reason).

So let’s talk about one who’s late to the party, who hasn’t — thus far — grabbed one-hundredth of the media ink those others have. But wow, is he worthy! I’m talking about Michael Keaton, who gives a tricky, live-wire, impossible-to-stop-watching performance in “The Founder” as Ray Kroc, the American business visionary who put McDonald’s — and, along with KFC, the whole religion of fast food — on the map. The movie tells Kroc’s story, but it also wouldn’t be wrong to describe “The Founder” as a biopic of McDonald’s. It’s a weirdly original movie that turns Americana into pop art.

Why has Keaton been out of the loop? He has never won the Oscar for Best Actor, but he’s not exactly a stranger to awards love. All the way back in 1988, when he was still busting out of his image as a comedy whirligig in movies like “Mr. Mom,” he took the National Society of Film Critics’ award for Best Actor for his performance as a scurrilous cocaine addict in “Clean and Sober.” (Technically, the award was for his work in two films, “Clean and Sober” and “Beetlejuice,” and he was great in both, but I was present at that voting, and it was driven by enthusiasm for the dramatic role.) If you watch “Clean and Sober” today, it holds up tremendously. It’s one of the most compelling dramas of addiction ever made, and Keaton, fast and frazzled but etched with furrows of melancholy, hits the true note in every scene of it.

A few years after that, his career hit a long rough patch, and that’s what his 2014 comeback movie, “Birdman,” played off — even if Keaton himself strenuously denies the connection. (It’s there in the trajectory of his flameout, and in its fundamental link to the “Batman” films — to how he became an early casualty of the star-making, star-trashing franchise machine.) In the year of “Birdman,” Keaton seemed to be scooping up every Best Actor award in sight, from the Gothams to the Golden Globes to the Independent Spirit Awards. A lot of people were sure he was going to win the Oscar (including Keaton, who got caught in a forlorn snippet of TV footage slipping his speech back into his pocket just after Eddie Redmayne’s name was announced). A lot of us still think he should have.

He has built up Oscar capital, marching toward that inexorable “It’s time!” moment. Which doesn’t mean, of course, that this is his year. But it’s certainly a year when Keaton deserves to be in the high-powered club of hopefuls who’ll be winnowed down to five nominees. So why, thus far, has he been out of sight and out of mind? Most fingers point to the Weinstein Company, whose movie “The Founder” is. This year, to put it mildly, TWC has not been the big-dog awards presence that Harvey Weinstein — who practically invented the campaign fervor that now defines Oscar season — once prided himself on being. “The Founder” opened for a week-long qualifying run, which is standard, but it barely screened in time for year-end critics’ lists and awards groups. It’s the little movie that’s still squeezing its way onto the radar.

The optics have not been good. Yet “The Founder,” written by the gifted Robert D. Siegel (“The Wrestler”) and directed by John Lee Hancock (“Saving Mr. Banks”), is a terrific movie, and it features Keaton at the height of his actor’s powers. 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, Ca., 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,” Ray 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.

But are we watching the story of a quirky American original or a thief? This multi-layered movie says both. The title of “The Founder” carries an obvious irony. Ray Kroc wound up portraying himself as the literal founder of McDonald’s, and that was a lie. He stole everything about McDonald’s — the Space Age kitchen, the paper wrappers, the golden arches — from the McDonald brothers. They invented the whole thing. So he’s an appropriator, right? A selfish and immoral one.

The film’s response to that is: No and no. Yes, Ray rips off the concept of McDonald’s, but he weds it to a revolutionary concept of his own: Hugeness. A McDonald’s in every town. The golden arches as a destination of worship, as iconic as the flag on a government building or the cross on a church. Making a product bigger — making more of it — doesn’t sound creative, whether you’re selling dishwashing liquid or deciding to open a franchise movie on 6,000 screens. But “The Founder” captures how in the case of McDonald’s, the impulse to go big — bigger than anyone had ever gone — became the essence of the concept. The original McDonald brothers’ restaurant was a place you went to. McDonald’s became a place that could soothe and envelop you — and give your taste buds a little hit of ecstasy — wherever you went. It’s Ray who imagines that McDonald’s could be all that. He stands on the shoulders of the McDonald brothers and crushes them, but he does something audacious: He turns a new way to eat into something so iconic that it rejiggers the spirit of America. He makes us into Comfort Food Nation.

All of that is layered into Keaton’s performance. He’s playing a man possessed — not just because he wants to make a lot of money, but because he alone grasps what McDonald’s can be. Of course, the rise of McDonald’s in the late ’50s and early ’60s was also about the homogenization of America, and “The Founder” allows us to watch Keaton’s acting in a double-edged way. Ray is bringing something new to the country, but he’s also taking something away. We’re disquieted by some of his actions, but we identify with the heat and sizzle of his striving. Keaton gives Ray a touch of something sinister (the more power he gains, the more manipulatively he uses it), yet he also gives him the insatiable crazed spirit of American invention.

“The Founder” isn’t the sort of movie that’s generally performed well. It’s in the quirky/freak/antihero biopic genre pioneered by screenwriters Larry Karaszewski and Scott Alexander, who always struggled with it commercially (in films from “Ed Wood” to “Big Eyes”) until they triumphed on the small screen with “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story.” Is there an audience out there for a movie about Ray Kroc? Some have said that Keaton is playing a Donald Trump figure, but that isn’t true (Ray has no surface sheen, and he’s a good businessman, which Trump isn’t). Ray may be abrasive, without a lot of class, but as Keaton plays him he’s not a huckster; he’s a dreamer. The bottom line is that what Keaton does in “The Founder” is better than good. As this season unfolds, he deserves one thing: to be seen.

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