Chances are that you have either seen, driven by, or even eaten at a McDonald’s franchise in the past couple of days. They are virtually everywhere, except in outer space, but I hear they are working on that too. I know this states the obvious, but have you ever wondered how this establishment, that is so ubiquitous in American life, came into existence? Wonder no more, as The Founder depicts a fascinating story of the very birth of the fast-food industry. This story was chronicled on the movie screen by the one and only Michael Keaton, who played a very convincing Ray Kroc.
Ray Kroc was a hard-working, but floundering Milkshake Mixer Salesman. His burden of failure was skillfully shown as he lugged the cumbersome machine from the trunk of his Plymouth to the disinterested potential customer, and then back to the trunk of his car after a failed sales pitch. The current model of drive-in restaurant was pedestrian, and had no need for a machine that made milkshakes 6 at a time. Some one did, though, as Ray got a surprise order for 6, make it 8 of his machines for a single drive-in restaurant in California. Intrigued, Ray drove out to San Bernadino California to check out this place. What he saw astounded him, it was a look into the future, and an opportunity. The balance of The Founder showed the true story of the consummation of the American Dream.
After Ray arrived and ate and assessed the unusual restaurant, there was a fateful meeting with the McDonald Brothers, who naively revealed to Ray their secrets to a successful and unique fast-food operation. We then see one incredibly well-done scene where the McDonalds choreographed their operation on a tennis court with a ladder tower (Bear Bryant style), their full staff of employees, and chalk. After seeing this, Ray was struck with a vision and on mission. Ray signed a contract to partner with the McDonalds and struck out to establish franchises for the new restaurant. Ray Kroc was a driver, a visionary and ruthlessly capitalistic.
The unlikely alliance of the McDonald’s and Kroc immediately ran into ideology conflicts. Ray envisioned endless expansion, while the McDonalds perception of their new chain of restaurants was much tighter and smaller, with strict consistency and quality control. There are not really any surprises or spoilers here as we all know the end result and what happened. What we did not know was how the creation of what we know today as McDonald’s played out, and in The Founder we are shown exactly what happened.
I could not help but be reminded of some of the scenes in A Christmas Carol , where the young and ambitious Scrooge ousted the venerable and lovable Old Fezziwig in the name of progress. This was yet another very solid and convincing performance by Michael Keaton, whose career has been boosted by the recent movies Birdman and Spotlight. Michael Keaton as Ray Kroc showed us a delightful yet disconcerting study in contrasts. We cheered for him and admired his tenacity, yet deplored his ruthless methods to wrest control of the McDonald’s franchise from the two brothers.
With a superb script by Robert D. Siegel (The Wrestler) and tight direction by John Lee Hancock (Saving Mr. Banks), this huge but unspectacular business story was made into an extremely watchable and intriguing film. Along with the great performance by Michael Keaton, Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch were near perfect as the McDonald Brothers. Laura Dern was Kroc’s long-suffering, neglected and unhappy wife and always had the mournful look of a puppy that had been abandoned by her owners at the side of the road. Ultimately though, it was the great Michael Keaton who was in virtually every scene, and rightfully so, catapulting this movie from the mundane to the enjoyable.
What this movie was, was a great effort that took full advantage of the audience’s knowledge of the backstory. Everyone is familiar with McDonald’s. This familiarity was then exploited without making it either a blistering satire, attack on capitalism, or a sanctimonious commentary on the quality of the food and its contribution to American obesity. We are even rooting for Ray Kroc throughout most of this movie because of his vision, dedication and tenacity, even though it is clear that he ruthlessly stole both the concept and the business name from the McDonald Brothers. This film was a judgment-free zone that told a remarkable American success story that created the fast-food industry that is a part of all of our lives today. Yes, there was significant collateral damage and the McDonald Brothers were cheated out of millions if not hundreds of millions of dollars. This is what we do, in America.
This movie will not be for everyone and will have limited box office potential due to the glaring lack of sex, exploding cars, and nifty light sabers; if you are an adult, it is worth a watch.
Notable Quotes and One-Liners:
- “McDonald’s can be the new American Church, it ain’t just open on Sunday, boys” -Ray
- “Orders ready in 30 seconds, not 30 minutes” -Dick
- “You build an empire by owning the land. What you ought to be doing is owning the land upon which that burger is cooked. You’re not in the burger business, you’re in the real estate business.” –Harry Sonneborn
- “There is a wolf in the henhouse, and we let him in” -Dick
- “There should be a McDonald’s every where, from sea to shining sea. Let’s franchise this thing! -Ray
- “If any of my competitors were drowning, I’d stick a hose in their mouth and turn on the water.” -Ray
- “Contracts are like hearts, they are made to be broken.” -Ray