You’re reminded of the ending to The Founder every time you drive past the Golden Arches on a street corner. But this drama about the origins of the now-ubiquitous McDonald’s has enough meat to provide a cinematic happy meal.
The film is more than just a nostalgic crowd-pleaser about greasy griddles and deep-fat fryers, proving itself equally effective as a cautionary tale about the perils of growing a business and the dangers of capitalism run amok.
While today’s audiences might find it difficult to imagine a world without fast food, the film vividly takes us back to 1954, when Mac McDonald (John Carroll Lynch) and his enterprising brother, Dick (Nick Offerman), open their eponymous burger stand in suburban Los Angeles with a concept based on unprecedented speedy service.
Its popularity draws the attention of Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton), a fledgling salesman of various gadgets in desperate need of a winner. “This might be the best hamburger I’ve ever had in my life,” he says after his first visit. (He might not say that today.)
At any rate, the siblings have already expanded the concept to four other locations, but Ray wants to take McDonald’s nationwide. Despite some reluctance, they agree to have him spearhead a franchise effort in the Midwest.
Their good intentions aren’t rewarded, however, as Ray introduces a series of aggressive tactics intended to seize control of the brand and stifle any efforts by the brothers at maintaining quality control at the expense of bottom-line profit. Along the way, Ray’s relationship with his wife (Laura Dern) crumbles.
Keaton is perfectly cast at the slick-talking huckster with a killer sales pitch — a sleazy opportunist whose likeability might be determined by individual interpretation of the American Dream. The performance finds sympathy amid Ray’s pushy egotism and greedy manipulation that turn him into the Gordon Gekko of the burgeoning fast-food industry.
The screenplay by Robert Siegel (The Wrestler) embellishes some real-life details and overdoses on quirks, but despite its uneven stretches, The Founder makes for a worthwhile tribute to innovation and blue-collar entrepreneurship.
As directed by John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side), this compelling character study makes an effort to prove its title is a misnomer — thereby shining a spotlight on the restaurant’s true founders. The resulting lesson in business ethics is ultimately more sweet than sour.
Rated PG-13, 115 minutes.