The Founder: Milkshakes, Manipulation & Michael Keaton

previously appeared on Cinema Thread

The Founder is a morality tale with many questions, but no easy answers: a film that makes you think, and reconsider your position, as the plot unfolds.

A visually perfect and tonally poignant portrayal of 1950s America, the movie centers on Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton), the salesman from Illinois who took the McDonald brothers’ dream of a simple honest-to-goodness Southern California burger stand and went wild franchising the hell out of it. Kroc made McDonalds into a global empire of 35,000 locations. But, along the way, he fell for his own Machiavellian machinations and deception.

Michael Keaton and Laura Dern in “The Founder”

There’s a midway point in the movie where we see Keaton dig deep and bring something spine-chillingly nasty to the character of Kroc. It’s the moment where he pauses, but only for a split second, before taking the credit for the whole operation, calling himself, the Founder. There’s no going back from that kind of twisted self-belief. It’s Keaton at his best. You can’t take your eyes off him — in horror — as his character loses his soul and everyone around him loses their minds.

Director John Lee Hancock (Saving Mr. Banks) and Michael Keaton were in L.A. recently, doing press for the movie, and sat down with cinemathread at The London hotel, just below the Sunset Strip.

Michael Keaton and John Lee Hancock on the set of ‘The Founder’

Hancock and Keaton make a visually interesting contrast to each other. Keaton is slight, compact, wearing a black puffer jacket, jeans and baseball cap, the sort of on-set anonymous uniform actors wear in the hair and makeup trailer before the day’s shoot begins. He has an easy humility and thoughtfulness to his manner; often pausing to find the right sentence.

Hancock is a tall Texan: preppy, with neat side-parted hair, a well-ironed checked shirt and a blue v-neck sweater. Hancock, whose last movie, Saving Mr. Banks (the story behind the making of Disney’s Mary Poppins), was another period piece of Americana, seems to spring from an earlier era with his NASA 1960s engineer style black framed glasses. While Keaton, like many actors, is a canvas, waiting for the next script before transmuting into character.

Although it’s their first collaboration together, Keaton has a shorthand with Hancock — you can tell they spent hours discussing how The Founder, and the character of Ray Kroc, needed to play out onscreen. Both director and star point to that precise moment, when Kroc’s personality fissures burst, as the reason they took the gig.

Hancock tells us when he read the initial script, it was the dichotomy between the first and second halves of the narrative that really grabbed his attention: “I was actively pulling for the protagonist during the first half and then cut to ‘NO!’”

Keaton nods and says, really slowly: “You think you know Ray Kroc — until you’ve seen this movie.”

“You think you know Ray Kroc — until you’ve seen this movie.”

Then he frowns and hesitates, weighing his words carefully to make sure they’re not misinterpreted, before saying: “I’m not a fan of sadistic greed — but as an actor it sure is intriguing.”

It sure is and he clearly enjoyed every second of playing this role.

As the movie opens, Keaton is weighed down by the awful degradation of the door to door salesman. Literally staggering, with the heavy five-spindle milkshake “Multimixer” in his arms, he gets shot down time and time again. Each knockback must send him reeling. But you only see the flicker of pain on his face before he’s putting the mixer back in the trunk. Then again, as he waits to be served in a drive-in burger joint. Once more while cracking open a bottle of booze and putting the needle on the Dale Carnegie vinyl, in yet another depressing motel room, gearing himself up to do it all again the next day, in some other small town that doesn’t want a faster milkshake maker.

B.J. Novak and Michael Keaton in ‘The Founder’

Until the day the McDonald brothers call head office to put in a bulk order for the “Multimixer”. Suddenly Kroc has a sale. He’s not a loser. He’s on his way. Just for that day, things aren’t so bad. Maybe this is his lucky break. Buoyed up with bravado and Dale Carnegie self-improvement exhortations, Kroc drives all the way to California to see this miraculous booming business for himself.

Picture Burlingame in the 50s, as Kroc drives into town: roller skates, petticoats, pony tails, chewing gum and football stars. The Founder takes its time with this section of the movie. It wants us to buy into Kroc’s excitement. It needs us to marvel at the McDonald brothers’ Speedee System, an ingenious choreography in the back kitchen that made burgers, fries and shakes in record time, and all with a cheery Californian smile.

John Carroll Lynch and Nick Offerman in ‘The Founder’

As Hancock points out, this streamlined efficiency and enthusiasm mirrored the mood in America at that time: “Coming off World War II, there was that feeling of: ‘We won it, we deserve it — now it’s my time. When do I get to ring the bell?’ I can relate to that.”

It’s the shiny gloss of the American Dream, belying the “Where’s mine?” anguish underneath, that gives The Founder real weight, pace and meaning. Otherwise, it would be just another biopic of someone despicable who fleeced some nice guys and ruined their lives.

Linda Cardellini in ‘The Founder’

It’s the shiny gloss of the American Dream, belying the “Where’s mine?” anguish underneath, that gives The Founder real weight, pace and meaning.

Keaton throws himself into this part. He delves deep into Kroc’s depression, debts and divorce; his sudden outbursts and fistfights at the golf course with rich, snobbish, retirees. Then shows us Kroc’s incredible persistence, hard work, fervent self-belief, (yes, bordering on mania), taking everyone in his path close to the edge.

Keaton knows that you have to buy into Kroc as an All-American guy, just trying to make something of himself. Otherwise the twist and downward spiral won’t feel so shocking: “He’s looking for the American Dream,” says Keaton. “Work hard enough and you can buy a house and a car and a vacation — maybe.”

Whatever one thinks of fast food and its effect on today’s society, Kroc’s genius was inserting McDonald’s into the very fabric of small town Americana: the church steeple, the flag on the courthouse, the golden arches. It was pure psychology, manipulating people into thinking that everything was going to be okay now, America had made the world safe, after the war, and America was the future.

The Founder is a smart, yet complex, examination of The American Dream that produced a nightmare like Ray Kroc. Definitely worth seeing.