Do you really care where your hamburger comes from? It's one of those questions that has come to take on a scary meaning in the wake of films like Fast Food Nation, but you may find your McDonald's burger distasteful for a whole new reason after watching The Founder. Those golden arches may be a symbol of happiness for some (Love really is french fries when they're fresh and hot) but the restaurant chain's path to fast food domination was anything but happy, except for maybe Ray Kroc, who made sure he "had it his way" at the expense of everyone else.
The irony of The Founder is that Kroc (Michael Keaton) didn't found McDonald's at all. That honor goes to brothers Dick (Nick Offerman) and Mac (John Carroll Lynch), who built the first one in 1940. So why not make a McDonald's movie about them? Because this is about how their naivete led them to lose everything, even their own names, to the snake oil salesman Kroc. That makes for a story McDonald's shouldn't want to officially endorse and they don't, although John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side) and screenwriter Robert Siegel (The Wrestler) go light on the special sauce and don't show how ugly Kroc's actions really were.
Keaton is disgusting, odious, and totally magnetic as Kroc, a multi-spindle milkshake machine salesman struggling to get by in the 1950s. He's drawn out to San Bernardino, California when a restaurant he's never heard of places a huge order. Curious, he investigates and finds the McDonald brothers who have basically invented how fast food works. No more drive-ins with girls on roller skates. They had a whole system down for how every burger was made in exactly the same fashion in record time. But they also came up with the idea to have people come up to the window and pick up the food themselves in little bags. It may sound simple now but back then it was revolutionary, and one of the best scenes depicts those early few days of the experiment as customers are confused by the whole process. Blown away, Kroc decides then and there that he has to be part of expanding this idea nationwide. But the brothers have had problems with franchising in the past, and in particular Dick doesn't trust Kroc as far as he could throw him. But the easy-going Mac wants to give it a try, and the rest is a history the McDonalds' would probably prefer never have happened.
"We have a fox in the hen house, and we let him in", says Dick soon after when it becomes clear Kroc has his own agenda. Kroc's a shady dude all around, from mortgaging the house without the consent of his wife (Laura Dern in a thankless role) to scratching around for any legal means to gain greater power over the franchise. He begins opening up restaurants in multiple locations without the brothers' consent, becoming the face of the business while they stick around managing their one shop, feeling left out. That's because they are, and when a whip-smart lawyer (BJ Novak) clues Kroc in that he's "really in the real estate business", it's only a matter of time before they're cut out of everything completely.
It's a nasty story and the reality of it is far worse than the movie offers. But this is a cleaned up version that doesn't bother asking a lot of questions. It's content to paint Kroc as a charming rogue driven to taking advantage of a pair of dopes who didn't realize what they had on their hands. That narrative is probably the least interesting take on Kroc possible, and we don't learn much else about him except that he always goes after what he wants, and that includes a sexy younger woman (Linda Cardellini) who shows him the value of powdered milkshakes (*barf*). I would have preferred a story seen totally from the McDonalds' perspective as everything they worked so hard to build was yanked out from underneath them. Every time they return to the screen it's the best part of the movie and sadly the most unrealized. In the end, The Founder turns out to be a lot like a McDonald's burger; pretty tasty at times but is so empty that you feel awful about eating it.
Rating: 2.5 out of 5