McDonald's is part of the American family, sharing closet space with our cultural skeletons.
Everything to admire and regret about can-do capitalism is displayed in The Founder, the only-in-America saga of how Ray Kroc hijacked an idea, stole a family name and invented fast food culture. Those golden arches were forged by greed.
Anchored by Michael Keaton's raffish portrayal of Ray, The Founder is both nostalgic for simpler times and Trump-era relevant. The movie begins in 1954 when it seemed America couldn't get any better. It ends after Ray revolutionizes an industry and the principles behind it, putting franchised bottom lines ahead of mom and pop quality. Birth of a salesman; slow death for ethics.
Ray offers Keaton reason to revive the fast-talking charms of his earliest roles, before seriousness set in. There's also desperation apparent in Keaton's opening monologue directly to the camera, rehearsing a sales pitch for milk shake blenders, his latest get rich never plan. Selling one is a miracle; an order for six from a San Bernadino, Calif., diner sounds like a mistake.
Ray travels Route 66 from Iowa to the future: a restaurant selling only burgers, fries, shakes and soft drinks, served by assembly line under a minute in disposable containers. It's the brainchild of the McDonald brothers, Dick (Nick Offerman) and Mac (John Carroll Lynch), whose blend of homespun service and stopwatch analytics brings Ray to using the f-word: franchise.
While Keaton's performance propels The Founder, the tandem of Offerman and Lynch make the story so amusing and ultimately tragic. These salt of the earth businessmen are no match for Ray's steamrolling techniques and too decent to believe they can be taken. A sequence depicting their restaurant's employee training, choreographing new efficiency on a tennis court, celebrates American ingenuity, as clearly as Ray's later actions celebrate greed.
Screenwriter Robert D. Siegel (The Wrestler, Big Fan) funnels every corporate machination through Ray's huckster voice. Grudging admiration is encouraged for a man capable of forging new shortcuts to wealth. One late scene shows Ray berating the McDonald brothers as "losers" for not cheating first. "I'm a winner," he declares.
When The Founder sticks to that business triangle, it's a fascinating tale. Siegel also sends director John Lee Hancock into less clearly defined personal issues with mixed results. Laura Dern gets scant time and character depth as Ray's first wife, Ethel. Not much more attention is given to Linda Cardellini as his later, savvier wife, Joan, stolen from a business partner (St. Petersburg's Patrick Wilson, also underused). The Founder makes its points on evolving capitalism sooner than Hancock and Siegel think, causing third act momentum to sag a bit.
Even in repetitive or undernourished moments Keaton, Offerman and Lynch always entertain. Their performances have fallen through the cracks of awards season. All that glitters on Oscar night won't be golden arches, and that's a minor shame.
Contact Steve Persall at [email protected] or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.