John Lee Hancock oddly directs with the same old bag of tricks that he used in his earlier films like The Blind Side and Saving Mr. Banks. There's no cynicism to his work, in fact there only seems to be optimism which is a strange fit to even the screenplay itself which plays out more like the Social Network than The Pursuit of Happyness. As bizarre as it is, Hancock and a few of the minor actors in the film are the only ones who seem lost in regards to what the tone should be. The man who seems to understand it the best is Michael Keaton.Technically speaking though in the early scenes of the film we are given a Ray Kroc who might be a bit more suitable to the type of character that John Lee Hancock likes to follow. Kroc in the opening scenes is just a past his prime salesman still trying to hock goods, in this case milkshake mixers. Keaton doesn't quite make Kroc Shelley Levine from Glengarry Glen Ross, but he does gives us a salesman whose beginning to show his rust. Keaton brings still that idea of the energy needed for a salesman, even when he is failing to make his sales, but he grants the right sense that the pitch has been delivered a few too many times.
Keaton makes Kroc a washed up salesman but a likable enough washed up salesman. Keaton brings that Keatoness that only Keaton could possibly bring which has a definite charm to it, and is a great fit for Ray Kroc. Kroc comes across something new by discovering the innovative fast food design of McDonalds, owned by the McDonald brothers Mac (John Carroll Lynch), and Dick (Nick Offerman). They give them their history, of failure yet eventual success. Keaton's terrific as he brings out this certain spark back to Kroc, possibly from his prime, as he looks upon the brother's successful idea. What's special about what Keaton does though is even in these early scenes there is something a little devious in his eyes. As he pitches the idea of McDonalds as a franchise to the brothers, he pitches it as basically something for America. Keaton makes the passion in Kroc's voice real and even makes it rather endearing yet not wholly truthful. Keaton shows just enough of it to be act in the way he portrays Kroc's glances at those golden arches. His eyes are not filled with hope for all of three of them to achieve their dream, rather a selfish desire only for himself.
It is easy enough to sympathize with Kroc early on still as Keaton so effectively realizes the sheer exuberance in the man as he goes about his attempt to begin the franchise. He underlines this though with a bit less certainty in Kroc with every initial failure. Keaton uses his few scenes with Kroc's first wife Ethel (Laura Dern) particularly well. In these scenes Keaton gives us an actual vulnerability in Kroc as he reveals the desperation in his ambition actually. When he says that "enough" will never be enough, Keaton does not deliver it as inspirational, rather he undercuts it with a certain distress in Kroc's voice. Now the following scenes probably wouldn't work with so many actors in the role. They are just Kroc at first working out the various kinks in the plan, while dealing with the frustrations related to the McDonald brothers who take a long time to make any decision. When Kroc is just "hoofing" it, dealing with some of the most minute details of the business, Keaton manages to make these scenes work better than they should because he's such a naturally entertaining and engaging presence, even when doing something such as yelling at an investor for using lettuce on the burgers.
We are given pure premium Keaton though as the franchises take off and Kroc only gets better at his task. Keaton is brilliant as the pure salesman selling more than just the idea to the investors, selling a dream instead. Keaton brings the grandeur needed in it all as he sells it all, and makes the success convincing just through the magnificent of his pitch. Keaton even maintains some real sympathy for Kroc by so bluntly still portraying the initial frustrations with the brothers who delay him at every turn. There is a change though as Kroc decides to take things into his own hands by essentially stealing the company out from underneath the brothers, and becoming the "true" founder of McDonalds. This is kind of where we have this certain conflict between Keaton and the film itself. In that Keaton knows where the story needs to go, but the film seems a little unsure of itself. Keaton is not afraid though to take the darker turn as he has Kroc reveal his true colors. The thing is Keaton never hid the seeds of this, having the devious quality from his first sale, but he takes it to the next level as Kroc goes about removing any obstacles in his path.
Keaton just relishes in the metaphorical kill as he takes any loophole he can to remove the McDonalds' claim. I have to admit my particular affection for his callous delivery of "Contracts are like hearts, they're meant to broken". Kroc's no prisoners attitude though extends even to his personal life as he decides to drop his wife for another. Although it is an extremely brief scene, as though the film is in some way timid towards the subject matter, Keaton is not timid as he so coldly delivers Kroc's demand for a divorce. Keaton inflicts within it no shame, just a heartless sentiment of a man who intends on getting whatever he wants no matter what. Keaton simply excels in the final moments of the film as Kroc secures every last part of McDonalds for himself. He's outstanding in the scene as he bothers with the good old salesman just one more time, offering such sincerity as he says he'll honor their bargain with a handshake. Keaton compliments this perfectly with the perfect smug satisfaction exudes a scene later when he tells Dick McDonald why he stole their idea in this exact way. Keaton's performance doesn't just elevate the film it gives the proper meaning to it. Keaton never sugarcoats his Ray Kroc, he goes about giving an honest depiction of a businessman who will do whatever it takes to get on top. By taking the darker turn he needs to take with his performance Keaton shows that this isn't an inspirational portrait of a man achieving his dream, it's the story of a man stealing someone else's dream and making it his own.