Nothing is more American than McDonald's, and that's what makes The Founder horrifying. I found myself scribbling that word—horrifying—a lot while viewing the film, which comes to the condemning conclusion that the American dream at its apex expression is nothing more than rapacious bullshit. The Founder is also clever and funny, thanks to a sharp script by Robert D. Siegel, and the story it tells is kind of inspiring, at least until it turns frightening and even sinister. Its protagonist/villain—Ray Kroc, McDonald's innovator and later something of a business cult leader, portrayed by the intense, superb Michael Keaton—is both genius and evil in that banal way of greedy, insecure men.
Director John Lee Hancock's previous movie was Saving Mr. Banks about Walt Disney's attempt to twist a tough true story into something cartoonish and suitable for mass entertainment, which is how you might also describe Kroc's story in broad strokes. It's not even about the food. This is not Super Size Me, not a denunciation of McDonald's as a dealer pushing junk food on susceptible consumers. It's purely about the business side and how the innovations Kroc brought to the industry changed America radically. Hell, the fast-food industry didn't exist before Kroc invented it. Though, as you may already be dimly aware, all he did was pick up the ideas meticulously designed by Dick (Nick Offerman) and Mac McDonald (John Carroll Lynch) of southern California and turn them into something that the brothers had no interest in pursuing: nationwide presence and success. He cheated them in the process, naturally, because what is more American than that?
Hancock crafts what initially looks like a vision of midcentury American gung-ho optimism in Kroc's discovery of the McDonald brothers. Their little operation in San Bernardino is a model of modernity, all attractive young people efficiently serving delicious burgers and shakes to eager crowds. The brothers are shrewd innovators: A scene in which they develop their method of assembling burgers quickly in a "kitchen" sketched with chalk on a tennis court is wonderful. It looks like the future! Quality control is important to them: They have a few restaurants across the region, but only a few, because maintaining tight authority over how things are done matters to them.
Then Ray Kroc storms into their lives, an entrepreneurial monster fueled by self-help LPs (he carries a record player on the road so he can listen to them in motels). Kroc has been selling, with little success, commercial shake mixers, which is how he comes across the McDonald brothers. Their anomalously huge order for mixers reflects the booming of their burger business while similar operations seem to be dying. Kroc is intrigued, and turns his claws on the brothers—and that's when The Founder becomes something darker: a tale of the beginnings of end-stage capitalism, as told in the cruel appropriation of other people's work, threats of lawsuits and too much profit never being enough.
The McDonald brothers' American dream gets subsumed by the corporate version, the one with teeth and no conscience. Keaton is absolutely mesmerizing, in a horrific way, with his vision of McDonald's as "the new American church," the golden arches as iconic as church spires and the Stars and Stripes. What we see in The Founder is the beginning of the corporatization of civic spaces.
It's amazing. It's horrifying. It's America
The Founder opens Fri., Jan. 20, at the Carmike 12.