The Founder may well be the perfect film for the era of Donald Trump – it’s all about crass commercialism, overarching ambition and a multi-billion dollar empire that was founded upon so-called ‘alternative facts’ – or ‘lies’, as we might more accurately call them. Michael Keaton’s triumphantly reptilian performance personifies the very essence of the current state of America, even if this true-life tale happened more than sixty years ago.
When we first meet Ray Kroc (Keaton) in 1954, he’s a down-at-heel travelling salesman, riding the highways and byways of Illinois, trying to sell multi-milkshake makers to the managers of drive-in diners and meeting with total indifference from everyone he approaches; so when he hears that a new burger joint has just ordered six of his machines, his interest is piqued, even though it means driving all the way to San Bernadino, California, for a closer look. There he meets the McDonald brothers, Dick (Nick Offerman) and Mac (John Carroll Lynch), two likeable entrepreneurs who have devised a new and speedier method of feeding burgers and fries to their appreciative customers.
Sensing that the brothers have unwittingly stumbled upon something that could be absolutely huge, Kroc persuades them to go into business with him, offering out the McDonald model as a franchise. But he soon discovers that the brothers have some annoying traits: a genuine pride in their product, for instance; and a stubborn refusal to cut corners in the manufacture of any food that has their name on it. What’s more, the tiny percentage that Ray is able to rake off from each new franchise he sets up is barely enough to keep him solvent… it soon becomes clear there will have to be some changes.
John Lee Hancock’s film is a sobering story of the triumph of corporate greed over common decency. Kroc emerges as a thoroughly nasty piece of work, obsessed with furthering his own ends, horribly dismissive of his long-suffering wife, Ethel (Laura Dern) and transparently greedy when it comes to the acquisition of somebody to take her place – that dubious honour going to Joan Smith (Linda Cardellini), a woman clearly every bit as corrupt as Kroc. It’s to Keaton’s credit that despite it all, he manages to keep us interested in the man, as we witness his callous treatment of the poor suckers whose idea he stole and made his own.
It’s hardly what you’d call pleasant viewing, but as a demonstration of what’s gone wrong with the American Dream, it succeeds on just about every level. Keaton’s classy performance is simply the icing on the cake or, if you prefer, the pickle on the burger.