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The Founder

Michael Keaton in "The Founder." The Weinstein Co. photo

Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton) is a salesman in the 1950s whose undeniable gift for gab doesn’t necessarily persuade anyone to sign on the dotted line. But the targets of his spiel are happy to listen. Kroc may not be having much luck selling milkshake machines, but he’s entertaining.

His route through Midwestern cities such as St. Louis is interrupted when he’s surprised to learn that the owners of a California burger joint are not only interested in the machines but want to purchase eight of them. It’s not necessary for Kroc to meet with the McDonald brothers, but his curiosity gets the best of him — and before he knows it, he’s heading west on Route 66.

Kroc is impressed with the operation that Mac (John Carroll Lynch) and Dick (Nick Offerman) have designed, which puts a burger in a customer’s hands only 30 seconds after it’s ordered. More than that, he sees franchise potential. But the brothers, who have been disappointed by their own attempts to expand, don’t share his enthusiasm.

It’s soon clear that the McDonalds have made a mistake in even talking to Kroc, who views the golden arches as the equivalent of a flag on a courthouse or a cross atop a church — and will create the international enterprise we know today.

“The Founder” is the fact-based story of a man who believes that nothing trumps success. Working from a screenplay by Robert Siegel (“The Wrestler”), director John Lee Hancock (“Saving Mr. Banks”) delivers a film that’s at once a tribute to the American entrepreneurial spirit and an indictment of ruthless ambition.

Keaton has never been better, portraying Kroc as a frustrated dreamer who deserves our sympathy — until he doesn’t. It’s another masterful performance from the “Birdman” and “Spotlight” star, virtually guaranteed to garner an Oscar nod.

Not just another biopic, “The Founder” is a morality tale that raises provocative questions about consumer culture, its benefits and its consequences. You won’t look at a Big Mac the same way again.

What “The Founder” • 3½ stars out of four • Run time 1:55 • Rating PG-13 • Content Language

Calvin Wilson is theater critic for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.