The Founder, directed by John Lee Hanckock from a script by Robert Siegel, is a biopic about the formative years of the McDonald’s fast food chain – it’s also one of the darkest movies I’ve seen in a while, and not in a good way.

Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton) is a traveling milkshake maker salesman who stumbles onto a highly popular diner owned by the McDonald brothers, Maurice (John Carroll Lynch) and Richard (Nick Offerman). The simple menu, high quality food, fast service, disposable packaging and focus on family-oriented customers of McDonald’s strikes Ray as the formula for the success he’s always been craving for – so he sets to convince the brothers to franchise the restaurant and go into business with him.

The Founder never tries to make a likable character out of Ray Kroc. In fact, it seems to relish doing the opposite – Ray is a greedy sleazeball that gradually and systematically wrestles control of McDonald’s away from the brothers that started it, despite their perfectly sensible objections to his rapid expansion. He ignores and belittles his loving and supportive wife Ethel (Laura Dern), mortgages their house to kickstart the venture without telling her, blatantly flirts with another man’s wife and takes full credit for other’s people’s ideas.

In short, he’s an incredibly mean-spirited character that seems downright sociopathic in his pursuit of the American dream. Keaton knock its out of the parks with his performance. He’s got the perfect kind of manic, sleazy energy to make Kroc despicable without being unwatchable. It’s a brilliant performance that end up being smothered in a movie that doesn’t know quite what to do with it.

The Founder deals with the soul-crushing reality that greed and persistence trump talent, originality and basic human kindness and decency. At the end of the day, Ray Kroc wins and the brothers get to watch their dream, the culmination of all their hard work, as well as their very name being taken away from them. It’s dark, depressing stuff, which is fine – movies don’t need to take the moral high ground and they don’t need to have happy endings. The problem is that the message of The Founder often clashes with the tone of The Founder.

The movie’s colorful, vibrant depiction of 1950s Americana and the folksy, jingly music that goes with makes it come across as one of those broad strokes, sugarcoated biopics that aim to make historical events accessible and non-threatening. More than a few scenes play out almost as if we’re watching actual advertisements for McDonald’s. A montage of the brothers explaining their history and how they made the restaurant a reality could feasibly be played in McDonald’s restaurants for children to watch and learn from.

Its the tone of a movie in which the brothers are the protagonists and Ray Kroc is the stereotypical greedy businessman villain that swoops in to get rich off their ideas – yet as the point-of-view character, Ray is also treated as the underdog, struggling to make it big against all odds. It’s not really a “live long enough to see yourself become the villain” situation, because the movie’s version of Kroc is simultaneously the villain and the underdog throughout, with the exception of the final stretch when he really hits it off. As a result, you never know if you’re meant to root for, or despise him and that ends up making the message feel muddled and indecisive.

Overall, for all of its great performances, The Founder comes across as unsteady and unfocused. It could have been a powerful, hard-hitting deconstruction of the American Dream and it seems like that’s what it was going for, but all it amounts to is a thoroughly disheartening experience that doesn’t actually have much to say.

Dir: John Lee Hancock
Prd: Don Handfield, Karen Lunder, Jeremy Renner, Aaron Ryder
Scr: Robert Siegel
Cast: Michael Keaton, Laura Dern, Nick Offerman, John Carroll Lunch, Patrick Wilson
Music: Carter Burwell
Country: United States
Runtime: 115 minutes

The Founder is scheduled for a 17 February, 2017 release in the UK.

(Images courtesy of IMDB)