Michael Keaton seems to have found a bit of a dramatic groove in the early second half of his life, which encompassed his Oscar nominated turn in Birdman and a separate but just as impressive turn in Spotlight. He gets a chance to throw himself into another real-life character, this one of Ray Kroc, a key figure behind the rise of the McDonald's franchise, in The Founder.
Written by Robert Siegel (The Wrestler) and directed by John Lee Hancock (Saving Mr. Banks), the film begins in 1955, as the 52-year old Kroc is a salesman hawking a more efficient milkshake machine. The Midwestern-centric Kroc eventually finds himself in California, where he witnesses a restaurant owned and operated by the brothers Maurice "Mac" McDonald (John Carroll Lynch, Zodiac) and Richard "Dick" McDonald (Nick Offerman, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl). The restaurant turned customers over in an unseen pace, using equipment the brothers built, in a store design they made and rehearsed with their workers. Kroc was wowed by this process and wanted to get in business with them, and started to franchise the restaurant across the country. Friction between Kroc and the brothers increased as the franchise grew beyond the brothers' anticipations (they wanted to tamp down growth and not forsake quality), and a decision had to be made about growth vs. quality that served to ultimately shatter the relationship amongst the trio.
The film starts, and almost ends, with a tight shot on Keaton as Kroc as he has his sales pitch. And whether it's considering purchasing a milkshake machine, or receiving an award, there is a charisma in Kroc's optimism that makes you understand why so many people did deals with him. And Keaton exudes this well, and includes a bit of minor physicality that is fun to see. When Kroc turns into a colder and more precise businessman with the help of Harry Sonneborn (B.J. Novak, The Internship), Keaton rolls into this transformation well. Sure he was optimistic when he was a salesman, but he also had bills to pay and mouths to feed like everyone else. That was a face that most people saw.
Two people that didn't see it apparently were Dick and Mac. It's not that they were duped, because the origins of the relationship between the brothers and Kroc on the surface looked genuine and amicable. The brothers let Kroc in on the secret behind their operation (in what proves to be an engaging sequence where they finish each other's sentences to Kroc, discussing the many failures before the ultimate success, set to a montage of some of those failures and attempts), Kroc had a sense of what the brothers wanted to accomplish with the franchising, even as he grew frustrated by their attempts to curb things. And in a moment when Mac is hospitalized, Kroc even visits him and literally offers them a blank check. It's the perfect summation of Kroc in The Founder, with the Midwestern nice, followed by the intent of swallowing them whole, planned on not.
Along with Keaton's continued run of impressive performances, Lynch and Offerman are up to the task as well. Dick is the more rationed brother of the pair while Mac the more romantic one, taking Kroc's actions at face value even as he was turning on them, even as Dick was telling Mac that Kroc was turning on him. Many will come to the film and know about Offerman from his past work, and remember Lynch's face from other films, but his role in the film is just as important and his performance is more than worthy of mention.
It seems like sometimes when you try to chronicle the look at a business of the size of McDonald's it's hard to get the complete story. Not because people aren't willing to talk (though the lack of quotes from some of the participants in real life doesn't help), but because things grow that big, that fast, that it's hard to remember what happened. The Founder does show us there was some caution exercised, but it's a story about friendships and collaborations that break, sometimes in the eyes of national and international successes. Combined with the performances of Lynch, Offerman and Keaton, it's a story worth viewing through their eyes.