Any habitual McDonald’s diner knows that their burgers are nothing without the pickle. The nominal beef patty tastes more like an evocation of meat than an honest slab of steer, and there’s no secret weapon in that cheap, cotton-wool bun. But it’s those two sharp, green slices of vinegary tang, set in relief by a sweet smear of ketchup, that really contain all the brand’s essential flavor. By the same token, it’s the dash of pickle in Robert Siegel’s script — a streak of sour, cheek-puckering cynicism amid its warmer, blander conventions — that gives “The Founder” its mojo. A ruefully titled biopic of Ray Kroc — the man who didn’t found McDonald’s but ruthlessly made it what it is — John Lee Hancock’s glowingly crafted, smartly acted film largely holds the cheese. It spins a classical tale of underdog entrepreneurship and American Dream-chasing with one eccentric twist: Its chief hero and villain are the same person.
Whether audiences will respond en masse to a film that slides so much corrosive irony beneath its gleaming, awards-season veneer remains to be seen. Not since “Steve Jobs” has such a bright prestige spotlight been granted to such a nakedly venal protagonist, played by Michael Keaton with an easy, puppy-eating grin and unhinged salesman’s patter that makes his narcissistically self-pitying character from “Birdman” look positively cuddly by comparison.
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Indeed, perhaps more than its makers could have known at the time of production, “The Founder” plays very much as a period piece for the immediate political present: a fable of vast self-made success gained at the expense of truth and integrity. In an America bitterly divided by its new president-elect, some viewers may well see Kroc’s story as inspiring; others will view it as positively nihilistic. That implicit moral tension, combined with a fascinating but distinctly niche focus on business strategy and property law, makes this an unexpected, commercially unpredictable digression from the helmer of such soft-centered biographical dramas as “Saving Mr. Banks” and “The Blind Side,” even as it shares their outward trappings of wholegrain populism. Cinematographer John Schwartzman, for starters, lights proceedings with a sunny, advertorial evenness that belies the friction beneath, though a deft, mischievous score by Carter Burwell clues us in earlier, signaling discord through low, brooding jazz motifs and antsy military percussion.
This is less surprising material, however, for Siegel, whose finely scaled scripts for “The Wrestler” and “Big Fan” likewise probed the bleak flipside of a quintessentially American will to win — the difference being that “The Founder” examines the spoils (in all senses of the word) of victory rather than defeat. “Nothing in the world is more common than unsuccessful men with talent,” we are told at two points in the film: toward the beginning, in 1954, on a hoary motivational LP played incessantly by Kroc in his days as a frustrated milkshake-mixer salesman, and toward the end, two decades later, appropriated wholesale into a speech where the now-minted mogul outlines the secret of his success. It’s a nifty screenwriting pretzel, encapsulating our protagonist’s belief that no idea is too big or too good to be stolen: Talent is less important than knowing what to do with it, even (or perhaps especially) if the talent in question isn’t your own.
An alternative draft of “The Founder” could have centered on the fast-food empire’s actual, well, founders: Dick McDonald (Nick Offerman, visually and vocally fashioned as a mid-century relative of Ron Swanson from “Parks and Recreation”) and his more retiring brother, Maurice (John Carroll Lynch), who opened their first highly innovative burger joint in post-WWII San Bernardino, Calif. Siegel and Hancock frame the brothers’ obstacle-ridden backstory as a kind of condensed film-within-a-film, narrated over the course of a dinner meeting with an enraptured Kroc — who has driven all the way west from his Illinois base to meet them, acting on a hunch that there’s gold in them thar grills.
Content with the humming success of their personally supervised restaurant, and deterred from franchising by a fear of compromised standards, the original McDonalds believe their story has reached its happy ending. Little do they know that it’s a mere first act, with Kroc as its Faustian pivot. Convinced that the unprecedented speed and simplicity of their service model has the potential to go countrywide, the silver-tongued out-of-towner wheedles his way into a business partnership, overseeing the establishment of further McDonald’s branches far from California — and, crucially, out of earshot of the brothers, who only clock the extent to which Kroc has claimed and colonized their brand when it’s too late to stop the bandwagon.
“Business is war,” Kroc states drily. The battle lines are clearly drawn, as he and the increasingly disenfranchised (so to speak) brothers verbally fire shots and burn bridges in one brisk phone conversation after another — edited in terse, talky, unabashedly repetitious style by regular Nicole Holofcener collaborator Robert Frazen. It’s not the stuff of searing cinematic drama, yet the ethical and philosophical complexities of their dispute prove peculiarly gripping. Just whose side, if either, are the filmmakers on? The McDonalds hold all the moral cards, yet Siegel’s script holds them at a cool distance from us; it’s Kroc’s calculating head we’re invited to enter, as the film finds a perverse sympathy in his long-stymied desperation to be a part, and finally a possessor, of something wholly successful.
“You and your endless parade of nos, cowering in the face of progress,” he spits over the phone as the elder McDonald rejects his latest cost-saving proposal — this time a new form of powdered milkshake that perfectly symbolizes his commitment to productivity over principle. The compelling quandary of “The Founder” is that he’s at once in the wrong and wholly correct — and that McDonald’s would never have become one of the great American institutions without his grossly toxic intervention. (Don’t expect any promotional tie-ins, incidentally, for a film that shows a global corporate superpower to be built on an act of theft.)
Keaton plays Kroc as a man both pathetic and singularly possessed, cannily resisting lovability at every turn, while delivering the internalized self-help speak of his sales pitches with chillingly glib precision. Yet his strongest scenes may be the aching, awkward glimpses into his home life with resignedly neglected wife Ethel (a fine Laura Dern, all the more poignant for being underused) in which we see how impossible it is for him to simply be a respectable working man: The too-wide spaces and too-long silences between them are consumed with his inchoate yearning for something greater. Daniel Orlandi’s typically pristine costume design emasculates Kroc in this aim throughout, consistently boxing him into unformidable suits in shades of tan and bodily function brown — as well as one yellow gingham short-sleeved shirt that wittily presages generations of burger-flipper uniforms to come.
A carefully chosen ensemble bolsters this rivetingly repulsive star turn without entirely surrendering to it: As Kroc’s future partner, Joan Smith, the wonderful Linda Cardellini gets a terrific scene in which a personal and professional eye-contact contract is signed between them in the time it takes for her to stir one synthetic vanilla shake. “I drink your milkshake … I drink it up,” the characters seem on the verge of saying at any point. While inducing comparisons to Paul Thomas Anderson’s “There Will Be Blood” likely wouldn’t have flattered Hancock’s smaller, slighter, less gourmet study of the unsavory benefits of all-American corruption, its dubious hero would have been characteristically proud of the steal.