Despite its title, “The Founder” isn’t the story of the men who founded McDonald’s, but of an aging traveling salesman who would not take no for an answer.

It opens with a close-up of Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton), a marginal vendor of milkshake blenders, throwing his salesman patter at us like a major league pitcher. When he tosses it at prospective customers, he doesn’t prevail. Retirement is on the horizon, and he’s not looking forward to being the poorest guy at his local country club, a swan song his uncomplaining but unhappy wife Ethel (Laura Dern) isn’t hoping for, either.

In quiet San Bernardino, Calif., Kroc meets the McDonald brothers, Mac (John Carroll Lynch) and Dick (Nick Offerman), who are running a remarkably innovative, remarkably popular burger joint the value-conscious find worth traveling to.

It serves precisely prepared ground beef on a bun, already seasoned with meticulously portioned ketchup, mustard, slivered onions and two pickle slices. Not three, not one, two. All that for 15 cents. You can add a carefully cooked, lightly salted packet of French fries and a milkshake, and have it all in your hands 15 seconds after you walk up to the window and place your order.

McDonald’s was built to Dick’s unique design specifications (no jukeboxes, no pinball machines or cigarette dispensers) with Mac’s unfailing support, and it was unparalleled in the food industry. Just as Henry Ford invented the assembly line to build automobiles, the McDonald brothers used manufacturing efficiency, quality and reliability to set their business apart from the rest of the industry.

When Kroc visits the McDonald brothers in their one and only shop, he has a visionary epiphany, reacting like a man whose metal detector has found a huge stash of gold bullion beneath the sand. Somehow, he must have it, and he will have it. All of it. By any means necessary. And so begins the brothers’ nightmare.

Kroc is a man transformed, one who is about to become an agent for change with global impact. Without him, would we live among H&Ms and Ikeas and Amazon, feeding our desires with things that are good enough and cost a lot less?

“The Founder” is a classic American success story about acquiring power and abusing power. In a way, it celebrates the achievements of a small-time peddler turned empire builder. Watch it differently and it’s akin to “The Social Network.” The film clearly shows that Kroc didn’t gouge the customers, but he gouged the hell out of his business partners.

The film, capably directed by John Lee Hancock, is driven by a firecracker performance from Keaton. What he’s doing isn’t imitation (which isn’t needed for such a visually forgettable public figure). Keaton is representing the huckster’s bombastic, playful, paradoxical essence. He nails Kroc’s hunger for success, his canny intelligence perfecting a revolutionary business model, his Pied Piper ability to pull total strangers onto his ever-growing team, sometimes for a lifetime.

Then again, lifetimes don’t last forever. As Ethel learns, her husband considers promises, like hearts, made to be broken. Traveling across the Midwest to cut ribbons at openings, Kroc has a business dinner at the Criterion Restaurant in St. Paul. It’s an elegant place where he is serenaded by beautiful Joan Smith (Linda Cardellini) on the keyboard. She’s married to Rollie Smith (Patrick Wilson), the owner of the restaurant, who might operate a new franchise nearby.

Kroc joins Joan at the piano, plays with her in tandem and smiles to her with uncharacteristic warmth in his eyes. Soon he’s revisiting the Twin Cities frequently to examine the businesses and keep an eye on Joan, who is a quarter century younger and quite friendly in a circumspect way. As the Golden Arches approaches its hundredth location, Kroc was a man willing to negotiate a hard bargain for what he wanted, even on a personal level. All’s fair in love, war and hamburgers, apparently.

Keaton’s Kroc often grins like a shark near striking distance, glossing over his predatory ambition only when he needs to be sociably polite. Kroc’s climb to the top is presented like a soft-spoken, Midwestern rewrite of a classic claim-jumper cowboy movie. As he moves ahead and wants more, he bilks the brothers out of their ownership, a tiny farewell share of the company’s rocketing profits, and even their family name.

He’s so full of zeal and double-dealing you don’t know whether to applaud or call the police. It’s this very complicated nature that makes him such an interesting subject and “The Founder” such a fascinating film.

 

Twitter: @colincovert