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Hollywood spent far too many years under-utilizing Michael Keaton, but it seems that sad era has come to an end. It took a stellar performance in Alejandro González Iñárritu's Best Picture-winning Birdman to change things for the better, and it now seems like we're on the path to getting at least one great Keaton turn every year. Tom McCarthy's Spotlight helped turn an occurrence into a trend, and now John Lee Hancock's The Founder has established it as a welcomed pattern.
Scripted by Robert D. Siegel, The Founder is a character study about the expansion of the McDonald's fast food chain, but operates as a hero's journey moving in reverse. When we first meet Ray Kroc (Keaton), he is a stereotypical earnest salesman -- living on the road and knocking on every door, but constantly finding success just beyond his grasp. That is, however, until he meets Dick (Nick Offerman) and Mac (John Carroll Lynch) McDonald. While Kroc is struggling to sell restaurant-grade milkshake makers in the Midwest, he receives an order from the brothers so large that he believes it must be some kind of mistake. It's an anomaly so significant that he feels compelled to drive halfway across the country to the McDonald's restaurant in Southern California.
What Kroc discovers is a restaurant model not only unlike anything ever seen before, but popular and successful to boot. With little hesitation, the salesman makes it known that he wants to build the brand and spread McDonald's nationwide -- and while it's a deal Dick and Mac don't love, they wind up caving to Kroc's charisma. Unfortunately for them, it's a charisma they quickly learn they can't control, as in introducing the fast food chain to the Midwest, Kroc becomes ever more power-hungry, callous, avaricious, and egotistical.
It's a surprisingly epic fall from not-quite-grace, but it's a part perfect for Michael Keaton. The man has spent nearly 40 years establishing himself as one of the big screen's most likable actors, and that's a fact The Founder uses as a sharp weapon. At the start of the story, you are certainly meant to admire Ray Kroc's tenacity and ambition, but a lesser actor in the role might lose you somewhere at the start of the second act. Instead, Keaton makes you hold on for dear life throughout the runtime hoping that there will be some form of redemption (or at least proper punishment) -- and that kind of presence winds up making the movie surprisingly compelling.
These are obvious strengths, but it the singularly centered plot has some key drawbacks as well -- both as far as the totality of the movie is concerned, and Kroc's role within it. The truth is that The Founder has a truly fantastic ensemble cast, but it also isn't the best utilized ensemble -- just because Keaton is taking so much focus constantly (the audience sadly doesn't get nearly enough of Nick Offerman and John Caroll Lynch as the sweet-but-screwed McDonald brothers, and Laura Dern, as Kroc's wife, barely leaves her house). Similarly off-putting, the dark path on which the protagonist takes us ultimately also has the effect of being a real turn-off by the end of the story, leaving the final impression as "Man, that guy was a real asshole." These are both elements that you will walk away from the film acknowledging, but it speaks to its greater strengths that it remains worth a look.
Like select items on the McDonald's menu, The Founder will very likely leave you with a bad taste in your mouth. After all, it is the story of a man who goes from being a hard-working nice guy to a complete jerk who has all the success in the world with very little backlash. Because of this, it's legitimately difficult to lavish huge praise upon the film on the whole -- but it certainly does make for compelling and atypical character-driven storytelling. Nobody who sees the movie will fall in love with Ray Kroc or grow any appreciation for him as a businessman, but it most certainly does solidify Michael Keaton's brilliant current renaissance, and is worth a look for that reason alone.