Corruption of the American Dream
By Tim Kroenert
December 12 2016
Michael Keaton is brilliant as self-styled McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc.
We owe a debt of gratitude to Alejandro G Iñárritu for giving us back Michael Keaton in The Founder. The director’s 2014 film Birdman featured a star turn from Keaton that reminded Hollywood and audiences alike that it’s okay to take him seriously as a serious actor. Now it’s hard to imagine any other actor doing quite the job that Keaton does with his latest role, as self-styled McDonald’s “founder” Ray Kroc.
Kroc, it must be said, is a despicable character. When we first meet him, in the 1950s, he is going door-to-door peddling monolithic milkshake makers. But he has big ideas, and they come to fruition after he stumbles upon a restaurant in Illinois, where brothers Nick and Mac McDonald (Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch) have perfected a system for selling fast, flavoursome burgers.
Kroc’s version of the American Dream is explicitly conflated with the American flags and church steeples of small-town America. He envisages McDonald’s as a ‘new American church’, a place where families can nourish their bodies and their souls. Impressed by Kroc’s gift of the gab, the brothers enter into an agreement with him to sell franchises. It will be the making of Kroc, and their undoing.
In Keaton’s hands Kroc is, if not sympathetic, then at least enthralling, to the point where we almost find ourselves barracking for him at times. Keaton brings his comedic background to bear, while also investing every twitch and glance with Machiavellian significance. At every moment Kroc is scheming as to how he can turn the brothers’ idea to his own glory. His persistence is addictive.
The cynical message here is that in America, hard work can come to nought if not augmented by ruthlessness. Like Kroc, the McDonald brothers are chasing the American dream. An entertaining flashback montage shows them chalking out the dimensions of their kitchen on a tennis court and choreographing their workers’ movements within it as they perfect their Speedee Service System. It shows how they’re building their dream on perseverance, ingenuity and high personal standards. Ultimately it’s no match for Kroc’s unprincipled cunning.
The film gains much from its excellent casting. Laura Dern, as Ray’s long-suffering first wife Ethel, brings a necessary gravity to a supporting role that she is really too good for. Meanwhile Offerman and Lynch imbue great swathes of humanity and dignity into their largely comedic performances, as the fast food innovators whose good-hearted dream is utterly usurped by the conniving Kroc.