“The Founder,” starring Michael Keaton as Ray Kroc, is being called the first film of the Trump era, which seems a bit much since, when it first was in development, Donald Trump was barely a glint in the collective electorate’s eye. But then again, movies have a way of picking up vibrations in the zeitgeist before they actually hit the radar screen.
Keaton’s Kroc is a Midwest traveling salesman whose eyes widen when he checks out a burger stand in San Bernardino, Calif. run by brothers Mac and Dick McDonald (played by John Carroll Lynch and Nick Offerman, both excellent). The brothers have initiated a near-revolutionary way of streamlining burger production, and Kroc wants in.
First he high-pressures the brothers into allowing him to franchise the enterprise, and then he inexorably (and legally) wrests the company from the brothers altogether.
Director John Lee Hancock and screenwriter Robert Siegel never take a firm stand one way or the other regarding Kroc’s avarice. He is indubitably power-hungry and ethics challenged, but at the same time, Hancock seems to be positioning him as the embodiment of the go-getter spirit that made America great and all that jazz. We’re supposed to admire Kroc while also denouncing him.
I wouldn’t mind it if the filmmakers came by this ambiguousness naturally. But their he-can- mean-whatever- you-want- him-to- mean agenda seems wishy-washy and opportunistic. A more sharply satiric and expansive director, such as Robert Altman or Michael Ritchie (“The Candidate”), could have turned this material into a classic love-hate letter to “American” values.
“The Founder” remains fascinating largely because Keaton is so good at guile and bile. Not once does he wink at the audience or overplay the obvious. His Kroc is magnetically repellent – more so, I venture to guess, than the filmmakers intended him to be. He’s the man you love to hate. Grade: B- (Rated PG-13 for brief strong language.)