Ray Kroc certainly didn’t see himself as a bad man—but then, very few bad people do. And in a socioeconomic system that pits private interest against private interest, what’s bad is always changing (or at the very least negotiable). The Founder details Kroc’s remorseless rise from traveling milk-shake machine salesman to CEO of the McDonald’s Corporation by laying bare the innermost workings of business in the United States. Usually, these specifics are glossed over with platitudes about pulling up your bootstraps; this film’s framing speeches emphasize “persistence” over intelligence and other advantages in life. Never adopting a smug or satirical edge—a welcome break from the dominant mode of liberal deconstruction practiced by The Daily Show, Full Frontal, and Last Week Tonight—John Lee Hancock’s vision of empire-building is banal and functional, a perfect mimesis of fast food. This isn’t Marx’s The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, but it’s certainly the most persuasive anti-capitalist film produced by the Weinstein indie film assembly line.
First glimpsed pitching a Midwestern drive-in owner on a multi-mixer (arguing that his demand for shakes would be higher if he could supply more), Kroc (Michael Keaton) drives cross-country to San Bernardino after the McDonald brothers order eight of his machines. Seeing how Kroc is instantly seduced by the future of consumption their burger stand foretells, deadpan Dick (Nick Offerman) and jovial Mac (John Carroll Lynch) McDonald explain the Fordian genius of their “Speedee Service System” to Kroc over dinner: a building laid out to allow for the greatest flow for cooking and assembling food, paper wrapping to save on plate costs, and standardization of all menu items (each burger gets two pickles and the same amount of ketchup, etc.). Kroc begs to become their franchising agent, insisting that he’ll maintain their high standards for quality and cleanliness. After some hemming and hawing, the brothers agree to the partnership, provided that Kroc give them final approval on any and all changes.
This sets into motion a series of events, all undertaken in the name of greater profits, which eventually leads to the brothers being cut out of the corporation that bears their name. In a scene that edges dangerously close to a Bond villain laying out his master plan for world domination at the end, Kroc tells Dick how his own surname is too harshly Slavic to ever successfully launch a restaurant franchise—McDonald’s just sounds so wholesome. For most of the film, the brothers (and the audience) are totally in the dark about the way the world is turning, which is perhaps the most convincing argument for The Founder’s subversiveness: control in capitalism’s chaos is more often than not an illusion, and even the most ironclad contracts can be broken.
Aside from critiques of economic systems, what makes The Founder captivating are its male performances. (Laura Dern is sadly wasted as Kroc’s long-suffering first wife Ethel, who is less of a full-fledged human being than a glowering family portrait that’s magically come to life.) Keaton perfectly channels his live-wire energy into Kroc, a man who could make the introduction of wax lining into paper cups sound revolutionary while operating on only four hours of sleep. (Kroc’s memoir, aptly titled Grinding It Out, is brimming with such miniscule innovations filtered through his nattering “Bohemie” charm, which screenwriter Robert D. Siegel preserves.) Whenever Kroc poses for reporters’ cameras—the moments when he secures his legacy by convincingly passing off someone else’s vision and innovations as his own—Keaton exudes a ferocious cheerfulness that threatens to rip apart the screen. While giving the hard sell to perspective franchisees, emphasizing that McDonald’s is a family (or, when addressing a synagogue, mishpacha), Keaton doesn’t lapse into evoking a zippy evangelical preacher. Instead, selling is when you feel Kroc at his happiest—his life’s work is his life, which, as The Founder demonstrates, is actually a pretty sick way to be.