'The Founder': Greed tastes good for the man who stole McDonald's

Michael Keaton excels as the man who turned a 1950s startup called McDonald's into an empire -- at the expense of the McDonald family.

Richard Trenholm Former Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
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Richard Trenholm
3 min read
Daniel McFadden

A painting of a wagon train blazing a trail westward hangs in the home of Ray Kroc, the main character in "The Founder." Kroc went west to make his fortune, transforming a family-run burger stand in the California desert into the fast food empire McDonald's. It's a classic American story. It's the American dream. And it's a lie.

We first meet Kroc, played by Michael Keaton, out on the road in 1954. Kroc lives in a world of road-weary salesmen peddling Bibles and milkshake machines, his principal tools shoe leather, a hip flask and stacks of quarters to dial up the office.

Almost by chance, he encounters Dick and Mac McDonald, charmingly played by Nick Offerman and John Carrol Lynch, who have quietly -- almost unwittingly -- started a revolution out west. That revolution is McDonald's, a restaurant that places a 15-cent burger in your hand the moment you order it.

Kroc immediately sees that this faster, cheaper way of doing things is as American as Whitewall tires, Little League Baseball and Route 66. And he wants in -- even at the expense of the actual founders Dick and Mac.

In "The Founder" -- now playing in select US theaters and opening Friday in the UK -- director John Lee Hancock presents the McDonald brothers as classic American entrepreneurs. They're smart thinking and hard working, with high standards. Their positive individualism starkly contrasts with the money-grubbing, corner-cutting hustlers who want to make a quick buck from the brothers' hard work. And the film is deep-fried in irony for audiences familiar with the McDonald's of today as the brothers decry their troublesome partner's crass commercialism.

Demands an outraged Dick McDonald at one point: "What's next? Frozen french fries?"

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At this point, McDonald's was essentially a startup , and the film serves up loads of fun details about the nascent company's bootstrapping, branding and pivoting -- with slick '50s suits and flat-top haircuts.

Ray Kroc understood branding. McDonald's isn't just about burgers, he tells the bemused brothers. It's about "family, community, Americans coming together to break bread." A lovely image, and gosh darn it, maybe he even believed it. But that didn't stop him from immediately undercutting the very same virtuous principles he espoused as he set about building an empire of golden arches from sea to shining sea.

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John Carrol Lynch and Nick Offerman play fast food innovators the McDonald brothers.

Daniel McFadden

Kroc's corruption is portrayed as a gradual transformation, like a slow-acting poison. At first he's a man of the people, a regular guy who disdains the exclusive dining rooms and golf courses where real money circulates, instead recruiting honest veterans, families and God-fearing Americans to work with him.

But the ambition and single-minded drive that power his success soon become something darker. His desperation as a struggling working stiff hardens into pitiless cruelty. His desire to take a step up, grasp the brass ring and succeed becomes a cold-blooded obsession with winning -- and for him to win, someone has to lose. For him to win big, someone has to lose big.

Keaton portrays Kroc's journey from all-American entrepreneur to cut-throat corporatist with suitably reptilian ruthlessness. At first you even root for him. In a performance that goes from comic to chilling, the actor excels in a character study of a man who may even believe the lies behind his own legend.

Linking the founding myth of American individualism to today's startups, entrepreneurialism and callous capitalism, "The Founder" tells a scathingly relevant story. It's about how men of the people step on those same people with a sneer. It's about the point when ambition turns into greed, when good honest entrepreneurial spirit turns into rapacious hypocrisy. Take a step up. Grasp the brass ring. If you can't beat 'em, buy 'em. Lie. Cheat. Declare yourself bankrupt six times. Who cares? It's just business.

So who's hungry?

"The Founder" opens widely in theatres in the US on 20 February and the UK on 17 February.

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