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Michael Keaton Thrills and Chills with THE FOUNDER (review)

Michael Keaton Thrills and Chills with THE FOUNDER (review)

Thanks to kid-coveted Happy Meals, catchy commercial jingles, and locations that blanket the nation, every American knows McDonald’s. But too few know the true and twisted story of the iconic fast food franchise’s origins. Enter The Founder, a biopic and cautionary tale that’s so relevant to our times it’s dizzying.

Michael Keaton stars as Ray Kroc, the inventive businessman who grew one successful burger joint in San Bernardino, California, to a sprawling corporation known worldwide. In his fifties, he was a floundering traveling salesman, looking for his next big idea. He found it when brothers Mac and Dick McDonald revealed their revolutionary fast food system, which delivers burgers, french fries, and milk shakes in seconds. Inspired, Kroc urges the brothers to franchise, with him heading expansion. Of course he’ll succeed, but the how is harrowing.

Cleverly crafted by screenwriter Robert D. Siegel (The Wrestler, Big Fan) and director John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side, Saving Mr. Banks), The Founder delivers two tales of the American Dream: both Kroc’s version and the McDonalds’. Over dinner, the deeply bonded brothers (John Carroll Lynch and Nick Offerman in a pitch-perfect pairing) tell Kroc their story, which involves a movie theater crushed by the Stock Market Crash of 1929, a whiz-bang burger stand in need of a new location, a whimsical anecdote about a bridge, and an emphasis on quality over all else.

Hancock presents their origin efficiently, with a series of charming black and white photos, and spirited flashbacks that show the brothers sketching out a kitchen’s layout on a tennis court with the help of some chalk, a bit of elbow grease, and a fleet of eager employees performing a dry run of their in-the-works Speedee System. Lynch and Offerman underscore this old-school charm playing the brothers like they’re Gracie Allen and George Burns. Lynch, with a sheepish smile and a garrulous nature is the kind-hearted fool, not dumb, but definitely naïve. Offerman is the stalwart straight man, punctuating punch lines and playing the heavy when one’s demanded. Together, they are so warm and wonderful, you completely get why Kroc wants to be a part of their world. But that’s not all he wants.

The Founder

The brothers’ story is one of diligence and ingenuity. The kind where ordinary hard working people are rewarded for being hard working and ordinary. But Kroc’s is that dark side of the American Dream, where ambition leads to greed, leads to an all-consuming need to “win,” no matter what. Kroc doesn’t care about quality, he cares about cold hard cash. Prior to sitting down for The Founder, I was completely ignorant of Kroc’s story. Thus, I was hit hard by the slow burn reveal that Keaton–who has made a career on playing the American everyman and hero in movies like Mr. Mom, Gung Ho, and Batman–is the film’s duplicitous villain. Here, Kroc not only cons the McDonald’s, but us too.

With a peppy score and a lovable American icon at its center, Hancock knowingly lures audiences in to what seems a common inspiring tale of the triumph of perseverance. The beginning is jaunty, establishing Kroc as a hard-working man with the gift of gab, an undeniable charm, and desperate need for the right break. You root for him. When he finally meets the McDonalds, you cheer for him, and you continue to cheer for him as he stacks up franchises, finally on the path he’s so long sought. But then, somewhere in the second act, there’s a disturbing sea change. The spirited score grows vaguely sinister. Kroc’s dialogue becomes sharper, his warmth wanes. And his actions become more and more despicable in the name of success. Before our very eyes, Keaton takes the good will earned over decades and shrewdly uses it to con us into loving a con man, a con man who will initially make our hearts soar, but ultimately leave us heartbroken and reeling.

Sly and sensational, this film is further proof Keaton is owed the Oscar he’s been courting with Birdman and Spotlight. But more than this, The Founder is an alarming reminder of how wealth is a sign of success, not virtue. A blustering businessman may seem to have all the answers. But if you want the true measure of a man, it might be best to look at the path that led him to victory, and survey how many broken promises, shattered bonds, and outright crimes litter it.

4 out of 5 burritos. 

4 burritos

Image: The Weinstein Company

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