Facebook. Ford Edsels. The Miracle Mop. That guy who invented the intermittent windshield-wiper thing: Hollywood has a long love affair with homegrown tales of ingenuity, no matter how messily they end. And what’s more American than the man who gave us the 30-second hamburger, pre-warmed and special-sauced under golden arches? Never mind that Ray Kroc was not so much the McDonald’s founder as a mercenary believer in finders keepers, and that his origin story has less to do with pursuing the perfect French fry than with co-opting an already successful business model, franchising it across the planet, and then ruthlessly eliminating any unlucky sucker with a legitimate claim to its revenue stream.
When we first meet Kroc (Michael Keaton) in 1955, he’s a traveling salesman circling the drain of middle age, pitching milkshake machines to indifferent drive-in owners by day and spending his nights in cut-rate motel rooms with a flask and a worn-out copy of Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking. Until one fortuitous order from a pair of brothers with a burger stand in San Bernardino brings him face-to-pickle with fate: Their ingenious methods (not unlike Henry Ford’s original assembly-line model) are the prototype for modern fast food, and Kroc, his eyes pinwheeling, clocks the possibilities almost instantly.
Director John Lee Hancock has some history with biopics, having directed The Blind Side and the Walt Disney/P.L. Travers two-hander Saving Mr. Banks, and The Founder’s blandly hokey first half feels a lot like a hagiography — corporate agitprop for a rainy day. As Kroc’s fortunes rise, though, the film’s tone takes a darker turn: Beneath his surface folksiness lies a man driven to the point of mania and increasingly disconnected from his humanity. Keaton does his best to make us care about a blank slate, as do the fine veteran actors around him. But it’s hard to swallow the aftertaste of a product so terminally, dispiritingly short on sustenance. C+