Watch CBS News

Movie Review: The Founder

By Bill Wine

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) -- As the only actor involved in the last two Best Picture Oscar winners – Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) in 2014 and Spotlight in 2015 – Michael Keaton has a lot to live up to in The Founder.

And while his latest lead role will probably not snare him an Oscar nomination, as did his great work in Birdman, it is still an accomplishment that makes his already impressive resume that much more interesting.

Keaton broke through in television comedy, then came to the big screen in popular movie comedies such as Night Shift, Mr. Mom, and Beetlejuice.

But it was his title roles as the Caped Crusader in Tim Burton's 1989 Batman and the sequel, Batman Returns, three years later that established him as a unique presence.

Then he more or less walked away from stardom.

And now he's back, bringing his combination of live-wire energy, compelling edginess, and acute comic timing to roles that call for all three.

Like The Founder, a biographical drama in which he stars as Ray Kroc, often identified as the man who founded the largest fast-food corporation in the world: McDonald's.

But, as the film makes plain, that wasn't exactly what happened.

After all, it is largely because of Kroc that the McDonald's advertising slogans down through the years are so familiar to us: Look for the golden arches; You deserve a break today' I'm lovin' it; Two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions on a sesame seed bun. Just to name a few.

Whether our being able to recognize them is a good thing, a bad thing, or an indifferent thing we'll leave up to you.

As for Kroc, he was a struggling milkshake-dispenser salesman in Illinois who, obsessed with the model of instant-gratification meals and snacks that Mickey D's represents, goes on to work as a franchising agent for the McDonald brothers, Dick and Mac, played respectively by Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch. It was they who founded and ran the hamburger joint named for them in southern California.

But given Kroc's various skills as a salesman selling the biggest idea he's ever had, the reserved and principled McDonald brothers are David to his Goliath.

And they do indeed eventually sell the business to bullying business exec Kroc, who convinces them to franchise their relatively modest operation and in 1961 takes out a second mortgage on his house without telling his first wife (Laura Dern).

Which is just another way of saying that, championing economical shortcuts and quality-control compromises that the brothers are unwilling to stoop to, Kroc steals it right out from under them via cutthroat corporate conniving.

And under his leadership, the Happy Meal emporium that started as a single location in San Bernardino, California will turn into a multi-billion-dollar global phenomenon spreading across 118 countries, transforming the way we eat and turning us into Fast Food Nation.

Furthermore, it will become the world's most profitable restaurant franchise, and enable Kroc to go on to own a professional baseball team, the San Diego Padres.

Naturally, the on-screen Kroc has, thanks to Keaton, enough charm to get him through whatever doors he feels he needs to get through, his often abominable behavior notwithstanding. But Keaton makes sure, after getting us to root for motormouth huckster/hustler Kroc as an underdog everyman in the early going, to show us the dark side of entrepreneurial capitalism as well, characterized here by Kroc's ruthless manipulativeness and guided-missile determination – whether dealing with competitors or collaborators.

Director John Lee Hancock (Saving Mr. Banks, The Rookie, The Blind Side, The Alamo) works from an original screenplay by Robert D. Siegel that takes a fascinating peak behind the curtain surrounding the business world while painting a complex portrait of either a lovable villain or a despicable hero.

And Keaton has the magnetism to compel us without repelling us, to keep smiling and refuse to look away from him even as we check that our wallets are still there.

So we'll order 3 stars out of 4. Tasty if not quite filling, The Founder doesn't flounder because Keaton is solid as a Kroc.

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.