If you think you deserve a break today, buying a ticket for this movie, about the early days and meteoric rise of McDonald's is a way to get one. It's true that the same amount of money for that ticket today would have bought you 29 hamburgers, 29 orders of fries and 29 Cokes back in those early days. But this fast-moving, smartly written, terrifically acted and remarkably directed film is worth it.
It's a scene-stealing showcase for Michael Keaton, who continues on his winning roll of mid-career performances that started -- in my mind -- not with "Birdman" or "Spotlight," but a few years before when he provided the voice of Ken in "Toy Story 3."
He hits the screen running with an in-your-face huckster-like speech about milkshakes and milkshake mixers, and how a five-spindle mixer would be so much better for restaurant business than the usual single-spindle model. Keaton plays Ray Kroc, a middle-aged salesman who lives in Illinois, and has been on the road for years, reaching for some version of the dream but never quite attaining it.
It's 1954 and, armed with the gift of gab and a strong belief in the book "The Power of Positive Thinking," he's failing to connect with yet another restaurant owner about this current product. But wait, he finds out that a little place way out in San Bernardino has placed an order for eight of them and, sensing there's been a mistake, he heads west to check it out.
The place is a hamburger stand called McDonald's, run by the brother team of chatty Mac McDonald (John Carroll Lynch) and stern Dick McDonald (Nick Offerman, who I didn't recognize till the end credits). It was no mistake. These guys had something going with their new concept of a fast food restaurant, and they needed those machines. Kroc is blown away by the way the brothers run things, and the cameras recreate the happy delirium he might have felt via constantly moving close-ups of the burgers being created. Director John Lee Hancock brings his already fluid control of the film up a notch at a dinner -- in a "normal" restaurant -- with Kroc and the brothers, where we hear their story, and see it played out in flashbacks. A nice element is that they keep finishing each other's sentences as they tell it.
Not much attention is given to how much time goes by, as the story keeps lurching ahead (spanning from 1954-1970), showing not only the changes that come about in the business after Kroc talks the brothers into letting him try to franchise their idea, but also the changes in Kroc.
He's presented at the start as a guy with ample ambition and a great deal of panache, but not a lot of luck. I don't generally go about picking just one moment in a film that hits it out of the park, but I'll make an exception here. It's when Kroc, shortly after signing a contract with the brothers, soon after hitting the road to find franchisees, has a discussion with himself, saying, imploringly, "Just be right, one time." Keaton pulls off an amazing character change, smoothly morphing from a wide-eyed hopeful guy with big plans into a heartless, selfish jerk.
If you don't know the McDonald's story, you probably think it was Ray Kroc's idea from the get-go, which is what he eventually tells people, and probably even believes. But there's so much more than just the success of the franchise to know about: Kroc's shaky relationship with his long-suffering wife Ethel (Laura Dern); the fact that close friends thought he was a buffoon with crazy ideas; his meeting up with lounge singer-pianist Joan Smith (Linda Cardellini); the crumbling relationship between Kroc and the McDonald brothers; a whole different direction of the business that led toward real estate more than food and franchising.
This all sounds so serious, but there's a light edge accompanying most of what's happening here, with regular chuckles being provided by the motif of phones being hung up in the middle of conversations. That part makes the film effortless to enjoy. But it's the combination of Keaton's performance and Hancock's direction that make it a great movie.
-- Ed Symkus writes about movies for More Content Now.
Written by Robert D. Siegel; directed by John Lee Hancock
With Michael Keaton, Nick Offerman, John Carroll Lynch, Laura Dern, Linda Cardellini