Like its subject, the man who took McDonald’s from a single burger shop to a globe-straddling child-fattener, John Lee Hancock's The Founder can't stop selling. The first fast-food kitchen, set up in 1953 by the solemn McDonald brothers in San Bernardino, gets celebrated here as rousingly as John Glenn's first orbit in Hidden Figures. “If there's time to lean, there's time to clean!” the brothers bark at their teenage fry cooks. Rather than time-is-money killjoys whose assembly-line efficiency is ushering us toward our automated no-job future, the McDonalds (John Carroll Lynch and Nick Offerman) come across as eager dreamers protecting a vision. The Founder's tour of their operation mixes Capra uplift with those training videos big companies show to new employees in service positions. It’s burger-assembly elevated to myth.
The operation dazzles Ray Kroc — Michael Keaton, in squirrely true-believer mode — and he soon finds himself selling it right back to the McDonald brothers, spouting ad-man poetry like it's the received Word. He tells them that he sees a new American trinity: the church, the flag, the Golden Arches. Keaton is peppery and persuasive as the guy you can't quite trust but are happy to have on your side. Often, early on, Carter Burwell's chiming score and Hancock's man-with-a-dream storytelling side with Kroc’s capitalistic sermons. Sitting there in the theater, you might worry you've been singled out as a mark, that the movie is earnest in trying to convince you that it's a good thing that Kroc and his coast-to-coast franchises eventually taught America not to worry over the distinction between treat and staple.
Don't worry. The Founder is smarter than that. The film honors the relentless belief of the bullshitter. Hancock and his screenwriter, Robert D. Siegel, sprinkle on the schmaltz to suggest the way Kroc sold McDonald’s to its inventors, to his first franchisees, even to himself. Keaton’s Kroc is a Music Man who doesn't know or care that, deep down, he's conning the brothers. Kroc compares their kitchen to something Henry Ford might have imagined, both because he believes this and because he knows it’s what they want to hear — the McDonalds conceive of their innovation in terms of folklore.
They herald him with the tale of customers’ initial confusion with the no-frills, no-drive-in, no-social-interaction fast-food concept. Then comes the miracle: On a day they weren't sure they should even open at all, the cars just started lining up. We see this in flashback, the staging an echo of Field of Dreams, a hazy promise that decent folk will always turn up to celebrate a pure and simple American ideal. That's high-fructose corn, but remember it’s Kroc's subjective imagining of the brothers' subjective narrative.
The Founder resists archness about the arches in the service of a greater idea: that Kroc preys upon the brothers' belief that little guys with a big idea and bigger hearts are bound to be rewarded. The Founder slowly reveals itself as a don't-let-the-devil-into-your-house parable, one that uses all the techniques of inspirational moviemaking to disguise that devil's intentions, even from the devil himself.
Kroc repeats a motivational mantra he plays on a record from a Dale Carnegie–like speaker, some gibberish about perseverance being the only true seed for success. He, too, believes the little guy is bound to succeed. In the first scenes, he's persevering but getting nowhere, insisting to the owners of sleepy Midwestern diners that a machine that can make six milkshakes at once might improve business. Kroc still gets laughed at by the swells at his Illinois country club even after he's convinced the McDonald brothers to let him oversee the franchising of their model restaurant. He even soldiers through a scene I thought had died, one that for decades has signaled the gritty determination of so many male movie heroes: His wife (Laura Dern) sighs that he's not home enough and suggests that maybe it's time to abandon his dreams.
In all these moments The Founder cues audiences to see that Kroc is the hero, that he and the McDonalds all are scrappy George Bailey types just trying to get their piece of the pie. Once Kroc discovers how much money he could be making without them, the brothers learn a dark truth of American life: Every Mr. Potter believes he’s actually George Bailey.
No matter how big they get, true salesmen can always convince themselves that they're still the little guy, that despite their success the world is stacked against them. Hancock strips away the feel-good glaze as McDonald's sweeps the Midwest. Kroc fights with the brothers over cost-cutting measures, and we're cued to like him less, now, because he says the one word that Hollywood knows middle America hates most: goddamn. Then he enlists the help of goddamn’s top competitor in that category: lawyers.
Hancock’s cautionary tale never examines the ways that McDonald's altered American life. Dieticians are not consulted. There's no elegy here for the diner or for variety; nobody complains that, when you drive across this country today, the businesses at the highway exits repeat like the recurring backgrounds in a Flintstones episode.
Still, in its final third, all the sugar and carbs The Founder feeds audiences curdle into something productively sick-making. In the end, we see Kroc, like any McDonald's eater, struggling to keep it all down. But he's a salesman, persevering, the billionaire little guy standing up to the snobs and prigs. Everything he's done he's done because he's the hero.
Starring Michael Keaton, John Carol Lynch, Nick Offerman, Laura Dern, and Linda Cardellini. Directed by John Lee Hancock. Written by Robert D. Siegel. Rated PG-13. 115 minutes. Opens wide Friday, January 20.