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Review: The Founder

January 20, 2017

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

the-founder-posterAlthough The Founder is sometimes staged under the guise of being a feel good story, it’s the bitterness lurking underneath the surface that makes this biopic interesting.

The film recounts the true story of Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton), an “over the hill milkshake machine salesman” from Illinois, who discovered a family burger joint in California in the 1950s, dreamt up and independently run by brothers Mac (John Carroll Lynch) and Dick McDonald (Nick Offerman).

Ray Kroc convinced the brothers to “franchise the damn thing” so he could eventually take over their revolutionary business his own, by getting into real estate and buying up the land upon which the restaurants were being built.

This restaurant of course was McDonald’s, and Ray Kroc is the one responsible for turning the small business into a fast food empire, and making it the iconic cultural institution that it is today.  We do feel genuine sympathy for Mac and Dick as they are essentially cheated out of their family business, but The Founder also elicits begrudging admiration for Ray Kroc’s dogged determination to get ahead.

Michael Keaton plays him almost like a swindler fox, a man who doesn’t feel like he’s gotten the respect or riches he deserves in his own life or business, so finds a way to weasel himself into other people’s successes.  Whether staring directly into the camera to deliver his sales pitches or convincing others to join his business like a pastor bringing parishioners to his church, Michael Keaton makes this real life character eminently watchable, oozing charisma and slightly sleazy charm.  This is matched by the nicely understated and entirely sympathetic performances of John Carroll Lynch and Nick Offerman, who put a human face to the people who got screwed over in his drive to get ahead.

Loaded with sharply written dialogue, Robert D. Siegel’s satirical script uses Ray Kroc’s ascent to the top as a metaphor of capitalism run amok in postwar America, and a study of the “every man for himself” philosophy that often masquerades as the American Dream.  Although a subplot involving Ray’s strained marriage to his long suffering wife (Laura Dern) back home feels a touch underdeveloped, the screenplay covers a lot of ground in recounting the basics of the restaurant’s early history.

The production design also does an excellent job of transporting us back to the 1950s, right down to a recreation of the ingeniously designed original kitchen, where workers moved in unison so food could be prepared in under a minute.  But first and foremost, The Founder is kept entertaining thanks to Michael Keaton’s magnetic and fiercely committed “wolf in the henhouse” performance, and it’s his nuanced turn that makes the film work as much more than just the origin story of a fast food joint.

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