Keaton cooks up manic portrait of Arlington Heights' Ray Kroc in 'The Founder'
A magic moment in John Lee Hancock's biopic "The Founder" unfolds when Northwest Suburban salesman Ray Kroc, played with subdued manic brilliance by Michael Keaton, sees his first McDonald's restaurant brandishing a set of magnificent golden arches under a dark Phoenix sky.
The structure glows with an ethereal light, like a neon, steampunk version of Edward Hopper's painting "Nighthawks."
Kroc appears transfixed, as if recognizing he's found his proverbial pot of gold arches at the end of a rainbow.
The scene demands a triumphant "eureka" fanfare by composer John Williams.
Carter Burwell's omnipresent folksy score will have to do.
Hancock, who specializes in celebrating real slices of Americana such as "The Rookie" and "The Blind Side," buys into Kroc as a transformative hero figure.
But anyone who knows the true story of Ray Kroc and how he "founded" the McDonald's fast-food empire, realizes that in formula Hollywood movies, Kroc would be cast as the villain, the guy who lied, cheated and finagled his way to the American dream while leaving the true heroes -- the oddly brilliant McDonald brothers, inventors of the fast-food business model -- in the grease bin.
Screenwriter Robert Siegel came up with the idea to portray Kroc, a post-WWII Arlington Heights resident, as a sympathetic down-on-his-luck, middle-aged salesman right out of an Arthur Miller play.
He's a dreamer, don't you know, a cockeyed optimist who listens to motivational recordings and adopts the single word "persistence" as his professional mantra.
In short snippets, we glimpse his suffering, supportive wife, Ethel (Laura Dern), lamenting how their marriage is a low priority for the hip-flask-chugging Kroc, now selling milkshake multimixers capable of producing five servings at once.
So who would order eight of them? What restaurant could possibly need to produce 40 shakes at a time?
Kroc's curiosity leads him to San Bernadino, California, where the two McDonald brothers Mac and Dick (a hilariously synced duo played by John Carroll Lynch and Nick Offerman) have hammered out a revolutionary "Speedy System" that produces good-tasting burgers in 30 seconds, unheard of in the 1950s diner culture of roller-skating waitresses.
The brothers tell the curious Kroc all of their secrets -- right away you know they must be inept businessmen -- and Kroc realizes he's looking at his life's ship, ready to finally come in. It just needs a little push from a legal tugboat.
A financial adviser named Harry J. Sonneborn (B.J. Novak) gives Kroc the key to becoming the one and only true burger king by pointing out that real estate ownership, not franchise fees, will amass the fortune Kroc desires.
Kroc continues his pillaging of the brothers' ingenuity and audaciously proclaims himself to be the McDonald's founder, robbing them of authorship as well as millions of dollars in owed payments.
Watch Keaton carefully, for his sly performance suggests Kroc realizes exactly what he's doing, and doesn't concern himself with questions of ethics, morality and loyalty.
Hancock keenly wants us to still like this guy regardless of how he conducts business or treats his wife, who quietly disappears from the story, abruptly replaced by Linda Cardellini's Joan, the wife of a McDonald's franchisee (Patrick Wilson). She puts Kroc wise to a cheap, instant milkshake mix made with water, not ice cream, which saves money at the same time it defies the McDonald brothers' dedication for good food.
In a Frank Capra film, Mac and Dick McDonald would take Kroc to court and win a huge settlement along with justice.
But they didn't.
And in Hollywood, the guy with all the money gets to be the hero.
"The Founder"★ ★ ★
Starring: Michael Keaton, John Carroll Lynch, Nick Offerman, Patrick Wilson, Laura Dern
Directed by: John Lee Hancock
Other: A Weinstein Company release. Rated PG-13 for language. 115 minutes