Michael Keaton in The Founder (Photo: The Weinstein Co.)

★★★ (out of four)
DIRECTED BY John Lee Hancock
STARS Michael Keaton, Nick Offerman

Harvey Weinstein, the controversial studio head who’s so skilled at manipulating Oscar voters that he could probably score a Best Actor nomination for that untalented imbecile Rob Schneider if he ever put his mind to it, seems to have taken a rare misstep with The Founder.

Releasing films for year-end, one-week runs in Los Angeles to qualify for copious movie prizes is a tried and true tradition, but between reportedly holding those early Founder screenings for a select few insiders and doing nothing to generate any buzz, Weinstein appears to have allowed this one to die on the vine. It’s been a complete no-show during awards season — in fact, according to IMDb, its only mention has been from something called the AARP Movies for Grownups Awards, not exactly an outfit that gets plastered across posters and ads. Harvey probably isn’t shedding any tears — The Weinstein Company has a strong Oscar contender in Lion — but it’s a shame The Founder has slipped through the cracks, since star Michael Keaton delivers a performance that’s among the year’s finest.

With a script by Robert Siegel, who himself was cheated out of an Oscar nom a few years ago for penning The WrestlerThe Founder doesn’t traffic in hagiographic nonsense as it looks at Ray Kroc, the man famous for making McDonald’s as representative of America as the Statue of Liberty or the U.S. Constitution. Instead, it reveals him to be a thoroughly unpleasant individual, with initial viewer enthusiasm over his unflagging energy and eye for opportunities eventually swamped by utter disdain for his willingness to stab good people in the back.

Ray Kroc has always been championed as the founder of McDonald’s, but those of us who knew little (and cared even less) about fast-food history will perhaps be stunned to learn that he had nothing to do with its conception and initial success. The first restaurant was created by siblings Dick and Mac McDonald (terrific turns by Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch), and they were the ones who came up with the streamlined service, the golden arches, the disposable packaging and (obviously) the name. Kroc’s contribution? Franchising. He’s the one who tirelessly worked to blanket the country with McDonald’s eateries, but to do so, he had to repeatedly go against the brothers’ wishes, including replacing quality milkshakes with powdered products (since the use of real milk and cream was eating too much into the profits).

Kroc’s antics land Mac in the hospital, but he isn’t done yet, as he works with a financial wizard (B.J. Novak) with the purpose of breaking his original contract with the brothers, receiving all the profits himself, and working it so the McDonalds can no longer use their own name on their original restaurant. On the homefront, his life is equally blessed, as he ditches the plain-Jane wife (Laura Dern) who supported him over the years for a glamorous woman (Linda Cardellini) he swipes from a trusting business partner (Patrick Wilson).

Clearly, for those with any semblance of a soul, The Founder isn’t the feel-good movie of this (or any) year, but it’s clear-eyed and concise — to say nothing of important and informative. Had it gained any traction, it could have been the Wall Street for a new generation, with Michael Keaton’s Ray Kroc replacing Michael Douglas’ Gordon Gekko as the capitalist pig most adored by conservatives across the land. Perhaps it’s no coincidence the movie is receiving its national rollout on the same day that the ultimate capitalist pig is set to take the Oval Office — a crock of a different nature.

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