The film opens in 1954 with Kroc (Michael Keaton), a marginallly successful businessman from Arlington Heights, IL, selling his MultiMixer machines that could mix five milk shakes at once, from his car. It's not easy to get restaurant owners to listen to his pitch, so when his secretary tells him over the phone that he received an order for six of these machines, he is dumbfounded. Believing this was a mistake, he calls the owner of the restaurant about the order; it so happens that this is a hamburger shack in southern California called McDonald's, named for the two owners, brothers, Dick (Nick Offerman) and Mac (John Carroll Lynch). Mac tells Kroc during this call that indeed the order for six MultiMixers was an error. "Better make it eight."
Kroc, now disbelieving, drives all the way to California to see this restaurant and meet the brothers. He parks his car, drives up and orders his food, which comes to him in about 30 seconds. He's never seen anything like this, and he introduces himself to Mac, who gives him a tour of the inner workings of the immaculate kitchen, with its specialized ketchup and mustard dispensers, along with its assembly line-like organization. He tells the brothers that he wants to buy them dinner, so he can learn how their fast-food operation came about.
Their meeting is one of the most best parts of the movie; good ideas lead to one failure after another, but their persistence paid off with their most recent concept. During this sequence, we see a flashback scene of how the brothers planned out their kitchen, as they drew plans in chalk on a tennis court and had future employees move around, as they performed their various tasks. It's wonderfully choreographed - Mac calls it a "burger ballet" - and it is very well edited and photographed.
It's this persistence the brothers displayed that impresses Kroc; at the opening of the film, we see him listening to a recording of a lecture by a famous speaker about the power of staying positive. Kroc tried that on his own and met with little success; now that he has heard the brothers' story, the light bulb goes on in his head. Here is his chance at the big time!
I won't reveal any more of the plot, except to say that Kroc manages to take the idea of the brothers' restaurant and franchise it; yes, everyone knows how successful McDonald's became in the latter decades of the 20th century, but if you think you know this story, you don't. One step at a time, Kroc enlarges the scope of McDonald's, much to the chagrin of the brothers.
As Kroc, Keaton is marvelous. At times proud and focused, at other times unsure and nervous, his portrayal of Ray Kroc is multi-dimensional and is the center of this film. Keaton probably should have received an Oscar nomination for his performance - how the Academy loves actors that portray real-life people - but I'm guessing that the film was either under-promoted or was released much too late. Or it may be the simple fact that Keaton is the type of actor that doesn't emote; his strengths as an actor - especially when he is listening and not speaking - are more subtle than many performers that do receive award nominations.
The movie is beautifully shot and lit by cinematographer John Schwartzman, who handled similar duties for director John Lee Hancock's last film, the underrated Saving Mister Banks. Schwartzman is an advocate of shooting with film, but agreed that one of the latest digital cameras (ARRI ALEXA) would work extremely well for this project, and he was right (I thought it was shot on film- the movie looks that good). His images of the American landscape early in the film are lovely, and he revels in the bright yellows and reds of the McDonald's logo, along with the bright blues of the American sky, capturing a beauty that at times is in contrast to the questionable behavior of Kroc. A snapshot of Schwartzman's expertise occurs during a brief scene when Kroc drives up to see a newly designed McDonald's restaurant; note the reflection of the golden arches on the windshield of Kroc's car. It's a mesmerizing, haunting image that shows how a talented director of photography can combine lighting and overhead composition to realize a visual that is stronger than the sum of its parts.
As for director Hancock, overall his work is fine, as he presents this story in an understated tone; it would have been easy to make this film heavy-handed. But while he succeeds at that level, he does tend to underline a few too many scenes (as in the restaurant when he spots a beautiful woman that will become his next wife) and does tend to dawdle a bit at times. Hancock's last film Saving Mister Banks was one of my favorites films of 2013, and if The Founder is not quite at that level, it is a very good film nonetheless.
As we walk away from The Founder, we can't help but think about the brothers, and how their hard work has become nothing but a footnote in history. Fortune may favor the bold, as one character famously quotes in the film, but perhaps it also rewards those who bend the rules a bit. While I wish the film had a tougher screenplay that focused more on that aspect, The Founder does has enough strong points in its overall approach to make this a highly entertaining look at not only a big slice of American history, but also an insightful view of capitalism, in all its good and bad realizations.