We’ve long known the story of how McDonald’s burgers are made, thanks to documentaries like Fast Food Nation. This jaunty biopic tells how McDonald’s itself was made. As with the food, the recipe here is one that includes making mincemeat of the unsuspecting, a lot of cheap cuts and more than a little unappetising crap. When we first find Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton), in the 1950s, he’s trying to sell milkshake makers to restaurants, mostly unsuccessfully. He’s a quick-talking, eager, mildly tragic grafter. Kroc has the ambitions of a big-time businessman, yet none of the ideas. His life is comfortable but he always wants more.
So he does what anyone in pursuit of the American Dream does if they don’t have a billion-dollar idea of their own: he takes someone else’s. When one restaurant, McDonald’s, orders several of his machines, Kroc goes to find out why they’re so busy and discovers a restaurant that’s reinvented fast food. And he wants in. Although credited as the man who started McDonald’s, Kroc actually just sneakily wrestled it from Dick and Mac McDonald (Nick Offerman, John Carroll Lynch), taking something small and wholesome and cheapening it for the masses.
Robert D. Siegel’s script, directed with a big smile and a dark sense of humour by John Lee Hancock, chooses the more interesting side of this story. The McDonald brothers’ tale of being bullied out of their own business might have been the obvious centre to the story, with Kroc as the villain, but by choosing Kroc as the protagonist the film gives itself more to play with.
Keaton is perfect for the role, his natural devilish charm making Kroc not a bad guy but someone who sees potential in an idea and knows how to make it better but doesn’t know when to stop. Kroc becomes rich beyond all his dreams, but he can never feel sated. In The Founder’s telling, the man who sold the world on the idea that instant gratification was everything never got any of his own, no matter how long he waited.