In St Louis, MO, in 1954, traveling salesman Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton) is lugging a five-spindle milkshake mixer on a thankless tour from one carhop drive-in to the next, spinning his well-rehearsed patter about how "if you increase the supply, demand will follow" to disinterested owners who only need to make one milkshake at a time, thank you. At night he retreats to lonely motel rooms with a bottle of whiskey and his collection of positive-thinking records for company. Everything changes in his Willy Loman-esque existence the day his office gets an order for six mixers. Kroc wonders: What kind of Podunk joint needs to make 30 milkshakes at a time? The order must be a mistake. He drives out to San Bernardino to see this "McDonald's" operation for himself, and is agog at the booming hamburger stand run by Dick McDonald (Nick Offerman) and his brother Mac (John Carroll Lynch), whose kitchen is a ballet of industrial efficiency. The families lining up outside for good, quick, honest chow have the milk-fed glow of a Norman Rockwell painting. The lights go on in Kroc's head: Franchise. Don't do it for yourself, he tells Dick and Mac. Do it for America, for every town that has a church and a flag and now just needs some golden arches to make it complete.
There's something just a little too flag-waving and starry-eyed about The Founder. The cast are an outstanding assembly of actor's actors like Keaton, Lynch, Offerman, Laura Dern as Kroc's long-suffering first wife, and Linda Cardellini as his blonde, business-headed second wife, but they've chosen to sign on to a project whose artistry is only a sliver ahead of a made-for-TV movie -- its dialogue is so on point it should be dancing for the Bolshoi Ballet, and its soaring score is worthy of an episode of 7th Heaven. Shots of customers biting into soft buns have the same worshipful gaze as a commercial (look at the mm-mmm nirvana of their faces -- it isn't the burgers that are overloaded with relish). McDonald's once tried to create a feature-length nasogastric tube of product placement called MAC and Me (1988), an execrable E.T. rip-off that features a five-minute dance routine during a child's birthday party at McDonald's, and has an alien who can bring his dead family back to life by pouring Coca-Cola (the "beverage business partner" of McDonald's) into their puckered little mouths. Have director John Lee Hancock and screenwriter Robert D. Siegel (not the NPR personality, the writer of The Wrestler and the snail-racing movie Turbo) been similarly McSuckered?
Something changes at the midpoint, however. As Kroc gets his go-ahead from the reluctant brothers and pours everything he's got into building a hamburger empire, he hits a snag: The naïve principles of Mac and Dick, who believe things like milkshakes should have milk in them and contracts should be honored. He can't let the beast grow at the rate he'd like until a chance encounter with a fellow businessman (B.J. Novak) clues him in to the truth: The ground beneath a McDonald's restaurant is worth more than all the 15-cent hamburgers he'll ever sell. Kroc amasses enough property and capital from the dirt beneath Mac and Dick's restaurants to eventually harangue, bully, and exhaust the brothers into giving up their brainchild to the insatiable maw of his ambition. We root for the plucky underdog to make his American Dreams come true in the first half, and recoil at the sociopathic bully of the second half who proved to have nothing human in his heart in the first place, who sought only to bludgeon decent, ordinary people into submission with his money and real estate, who installed himself as their lord after conning them that he was on their side, that he was helping them live the common man's American dream, that he was always just doing them a favor.
This movie opens on January 20, 2017, a date that may prove to be a last day of sorts in American history, and it has to be asked: Did the filmmakers intend this as some kind of Derrida-ian artifact, a work of arch meta-irony masquerading as an unremarkable rags-to-riches biopic? Consider how Laura Dern, a capable actress, delivers a performance here that is barely above that of a B-list Lifetime movie heroine. Is she phoning it in? Or can it be that she's blunting down her full emotional range to a narrow band on purpose in order to pull off the most difficult meta-task any actor can do, which is to play a role as if they're a slightly less talented thespian? In Blue Velvet, that other exploration of the corrupt core of apple-cheeked Americana, she read every line so brimming over with earnest beach-movie mannerisms that she sounded as though she was speaking slowly and carefully to someone with a brain injury. That stark posturing clued audiences in that the film was all a farce on some level, but there's no showing her hand here. There is no Michael Moore-style wink and a nod in The Founder to clue liberal moviegoers that it's time to start feeling smug and outraged now. At any moment, The Founder can be correctly read as a celebration of American corporate ambition, or as an equally passionate indictment of it. It's like that optical illusion where the protruding corner of a box suddenly snaps back and forth into a recessing corner.
This movie has much in common with the excellent and underrated Nightcrawler, a similar Horatio Alger tale for sociopaths. Both Ray Kroc and Jake Gyllenhaal's Louis Bloom are hungry strivers who find ripe opportunity in Southern California, epicenter of American dreams. Both have a personality constructed from devouring rage sheathed in motivational platitudes. Both find a scavenger's opportunity in meat: Kroc in sizzling burgers, Bloom in peddling videos of human carnage to news stations. And, despite not undergoing any humane personal growth -- in fact, they end up shedding a lot of it, in the manner of a snake (or Krocodile) -- both triumph in the end. Nightcrawler did not do well at the box office, despite being an excellent movie (and a more poetic cinematic experience than The Founder), because its moral conclusion was so unsettling: You can rise to power in this country on nothing more than the force of your own remorseless monstrosity. We the people will not stop you, or even shame you once you reach the summit. We will celebrate the fruits of your greed, and envy your vacuous soul.
Mac and Dick are portrayed as lambs to the slaughter of corporate greed, men who put their faith in all that was nourishing and pure about America. Maybe it's wrong to think Ray Kroc is the liar who victimized them, The Founder hints. Maybe Mac and Dick are the only liars here, because they deluded themselves about the inherent goodness of "the church and the flag." Ask a Cherokee about how the church and the flag got there, and they'll talk about who took the dirt beneath their feet, too. It's hard to say what to think about The Founder. Is it a mediocre biopic? Or is it crazy like a fox? The movie looks you in the face and unblinkingly tells you what you want to believe, just like Ray Kroc, and keeps the truth about what it really is to itself. One thing's for sure: It won't make you want a hamburger when it's over.