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It has been more twenty years since I first learnt that the man behind the global success of McDonald’s is not named McDonald, nor related to anyone named McDonald. In fact, his name is Ray Kroc – as Michael Keaton, who portrays him in The Founder points out, it is not exactly a name that makes you think of a restaurant.

the-founderIn 1954, fledgling and ambitious Chicago milkshake multi-mixer salesman meets the McDonald Brothers, Dick (Nick Offerman) and “Mac” (John Carroll Lynch) after receiving a surprisingly large order. Out of curiosity to see why any “drive-thru” restaurant would have a need to make thirty milkshakes at a time, he drives across the country to San Bernardino, California.

At a time when typical drive-thru restaurants are served by waitresses struggling to stay upright on their roller-skates delivering food trays to waiting cars of teenagers, Kroc is surprised to find long lines of customers of all ages outside McDonald’s. He is even more surprised when his order is delivered to him within seconds of him placing his order of hamburger, fries and a Coke.

We quickly learn that the brothers had previously attempted to franchise their restaurant but with little success. Without any way of controlling the quality of the food served, the menus or the operational processes – all of which are the hallmarks of the McDonald’s trademark we are all familiar with now – the other restaurants bear little resemblance to the original. Kroc offers to help, and in his eagerness to get the ball rolling, he unwittingly signs an agency agreement that is so restrictive as to not only prohibit his profitability, but nearly loses his entire lifesavings.

Over the course of the next few years, McDonald’s franchisees continue to spring up around the country rapidly, causing major friction between the original founders of the restaurants and the founder of the newly-incorporated McDonald’s name.

At just under two hours long, The Founder tries to cover the key events in the company’s early history, focusing mainly on Kroc’s ambitions for himself and for the company. In trying to include the McDonald brothers’ side of the story, Robert D. Siegel’s script feels unbalanced. For the most part, you want to cheer for Kroc and his success, begrudging the brothers’ frustrating efforts to undercut Kroc’s ideas. At the same time, you feel sympathy towards the brothers as Kroc finds ways around their contractual agreement, and ultimately cheats them out of a fortune. Is Kroc a hero or a villain?

Keaton puts in another award-worthy performance while Offerman and Lynch make me want to run out and get a hamburger to reassure them that all is right with the fast-food world. Laura Dern’s Ethel Kroc, Ray’s long-suffering wife, is so underwritten that, unfortunately, leaves her with little to work with. Since we never actually see any signs of the Krocs being in love, the audience is simply left feeling nothing for them as a couple when the marriage eventually breaks up.

B.J. Novak (as Harry Sonneborn – the financial genius who saves Kroc from financial ruin), Patrick Wilson (as Rollie Smith) and Linda Cardellini (as Joan Smith) – the fine-dining restauranteurs who become McDonald’s franchisees, round up a talented cast.

Directed by John Lee Hancock (of The Blindside and Saving Mr Banks fame), The Founder is now showing across Australia.