By BRIAN BOHNERT
SENIOR STAFF WRITER
“How the heck does a 52-year-old, over-the-hill milkshake-machine salesman build a fast-food empire with 1,600 restaurants and an annual revenue of $700,000,000?”
If you ask Ray Kroc, played by the incomparable Michael Keaton in “The Founder,” he’d probably just say one word — “Persistence.”
But in reality, Kroc found himself atop the world’s largest fast-food chain by ruthlessly swindling a revolutionary concept from its real founders.
Though, it’s hard to see Kroc as a villain with Keaton in the role. His portrayal of the late billionaire is both tragic and endearing — quirky, yet devilishly cunning. A fascinating performance from start to finish, delivered in a way only Keaton can.
The story begins in 1954 with Kroc lugging his mixers to drive-in restaurants all across America’s Corn Belt. His pitch is flashy and beaming with wide-eyed optimism, but nobody’s biting. Much like with his previous get-rich-quick schemes, his attempts are met with a symphony of slamming doors.
All of that changes, however, when a small burger stand in southern California places a jaw-dropping order for six machines — wait, better make it eight.
Thinking it must be some sort of mistake, Kroc embarks on a cross-country trip to San Bernardino that brings him right to the walk-up window of bustling burger joint McDonald’s.
There he meets brothers Mac and Dick McDonald (John Carroll Lynch and Nick Offerman), who developed the groundbreaking “Speedee System” that gets their 15-cent burgers from grill to customer in 30 seconds, not 30 minutes.
Perhaps more fascinating than the revolutionary leap in service is how director John Lee Hancock (“The Blind Side,” “Saving Mr. Banks”) depicts its creation. In a flashback, the McDonald brothers choreograph the ambitious system on a tennis court, moving young employees around the makeshift kitchen with the seamlessness and panache of a Broadway musical.
Kroc throws a hell of a captivating sales pitch at the brothers, telling them “McDonald’s can be the new American church” with golden arches as far as the eye can see.
Mac McDonald — the friendlier, more good-hearted brother — is all for it, placing his trust in Kroc to make the family dream a reality. Lynch is invaluable in the role, bringing warmth, sincerity and innocence to the screen.
The gruff Dick McDonald is far more suspicious of Kroc’s proposition. Offerman — nearly unrecognizable without his trademark beard — is perfect.
At one point, the brothers nearly pull the plug on Kroc’s plan to “franchise, franchise, franchise” out of fear they wouldn’t be able to hold more restaurants to the same standards as their sole location.
They were the perfect model for what a successful American businessman should be. Kroc was the perfect example for what a successful American businessman is.
Like Willy Lowman in “Death of a Salesman,” Kroc is a complicated man who desperately — feverishly — chases his vision of the American Dream and wrestles with the concept of his life ever really being “good enough.”
Oscar-nominated actress Laura Dern is neglected by both her on-screen husband and the filmmakers in her role as Kroc’s first wife, Ethel. An immeasurably talented performer, she is relegated to being nothing more than a nag who spends her nights haplessly pining for her husband to be the man she loved.
Linda Cardellini gets the fun part as Joan Smith, Kroc’s second wife who leaves McDonald’s franchisee Rollie (Patrick Wilson) to be with the restaurant tycoon. It is her character who gives Kroc arguably his only original contribution to the McDonald’s chain — and it’s still not even his idea.
Overall, “The Founder” is a brilliant and entertaining account of Kroc’s rise to prominence. Hancock manages to keep the colorful story moving, despite several instances where business jargon threatens to slow it down.
Screenwriter Robert Siegel (“The Wrestler”) paints the protagonist as a complex, yet sympathetic character who quickly reminds us just how seductive the dark side of American capitalism can be.
In fact, actually calling Kroc the protagonist of the film is a bit generous as he is no more a traditional cinematic hero than he is the true founder of McDonald’s.
But for all his misdeeds, Kroc remains relatively untarnished in the film. His charisma and knack for knowing a good thing when he sees one leaves him triumphant and rich.
Very, very rich.
Verdict: 4.5 stars