“The Founder,” starring Michael Keaton as Ray Kroc, the man who turned a small burger chain called McDonald’s into a world-devouring empire, begins in the year 1954 BC — Before Clown. The stripe-suited Ronald McDonald doesn’t even enter into this story, which goes so far back into the mists of time that folks barely grasp the concept of “fast” food. One of the charms of this smart, illuminating and slightly rueful film is that it takes place in a wide-open America not yet defined by the golden arches dotting its highways.

Although “The Founder” is nominally a biopic, its protagonist is really American capitalism itself. Kroc was a 52-year-old salesman of milkshake mixers when he stopped by the surprisingly busy San Bernardino hamburger joint McDonald’s, started by two brothers, friendly Mac and surly Dick (John Carroll Lynch and Nick Offerman, respectively, and both terrific). Watching their mini-factory burp out burgers the way Henry Ford produced Model T’s — the custom-made ketchup squirters are a marvel — Kroc is smitten. Using his gift for gab and willingness to be a pain (Keaton is to the manner born on both counts), Kroc becomes the brothers’ new partner, scouring the country for potential franchisees.

advertisement | advertise on newsday

What follows is a battle between the growth-driven Kroc and the almost artisanal McDonald brothers. They balk at product placement for Coca-Cola (“I have no interest in that kind of crass commercialism!” Dick thunders), but Kroc pushes relentlessly for profit. Even his illicit affair with Joan Smith (Linda Cardellini), a cocktail-bar pianist, has capitalist overtones: When Joan introduces Kroc to a revolutionary instant milkshake mix — solving the problem of high refrigeration costs — he knows he’s found his future wife. The small-thinking brothers seem destined to end up beneath his wheels.

Directed with loving attention to midcentury detail by John Lee Hancock (“Saving Mr. Banks”) from a densely-packed script by Robert Siegel (“Big Fan”), “The Founder” tells an age-old tale of visionaries and their casualties. Replace hamburgers with Facebook and you’ve got “The Social Network”; substitute Apple computers and you’ve got “Steve Jobs.” Like that movie, “The Founder” seems more fascinated by the product than the man, which can lead to some dramatic dryness. Still, there’s enough rich history and food for thought here to lend plenty of gravitas to your next Happy Meal.