Keaton riveting in The Founder
Of course I can’t be for certain, but I can’t imagine that even in his wildest dreams Ray Kroc could have conceived that McDonald’s restaurants would have the impact on the world that they do today. With 36,615 locations worldwide and having posted a $25 billion profit for 2015, it’s estimated that 68 million people eat at one of the corporation’s locations every day. As we all know, Kroc set in motion an international dietary nightmare, but from a business point of view, his plan to open as many franchises as possible to provide cheaply made food with minimum-wage labor was a master stroke that’s been emulated again and again to many a dietitian’s horror.
John Lee Hancock’s The Founder charts the rise of the McDonald’s corporation under Kroc’s duplicitous hand, and it proves to be a fascinating story driven by a powerhouse performance from Michael Keaton in the title role. He takes the former milkshake machine salesman from being a charming, self-effacing, desperate entrepreneur to being a heartless, mercenary opportunist in a seamless transition that’s a wonder to behold. The moral bankruptcy he brings to the fore is bereft of any scene-rending moments but rather consists of bits of off-hand callousness that, while quieter, prove more sincere and affecting.
The film begins in 1954 with Kroc beating his head against a wall trying to sell milkshake machines that make three drinks at a time. Just when he’s about to throw in the towel, he’s told that two brothers, Dick and Mac McDonald (Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch), who operate a drive-in hamburger restaurant in San Bernadino, California, have ordered six of the hard-to-peddle appliances. Curious as to why they would need so many, Kroc drives cross-country to deliver them personally, and on arrival, he’s introduced to the future of American dining. Using an assembly line method, the brothers invented a quick, uniform way to make and deliver their product, which has customers lining up around the block.
The remainder of the film deals with Kroc wresting control of the brother’s innovation from them for his own use. He comes off as a cajoler of the first order, telling Dick and Mac that “it would be a shame to watch your precious creation be mismanaged,” and that “McDonald’s can be the new American church,” after spinning a vision of franchises stretching coast-to-coast, each becoming the nexus of their respective communities. Though they have some reservations, the brothers fall for his song and dance, and once papers are signed, their fates are sealed.
Hancock (The Blind Side, Saving Mr. Banks) has always been a competent, straightforward storyteller with little in the way of style. He stays out of his own way throughout and at least keeps the story moving at an engaging pace. The script by Robert D. Siegel does a fine job detailing Kroc’s rise and the McDonalds’ fall, but far too little time is spent where their private lives are concerned. Laura Dern is wasted as Kroc’s disposable first wife, Ethel, while Linda Cardellini barely registers as his second wife, Joan, a woman just as mercilessly ambitious. (For a fascinating account of their relationship, pick up Ray & Joan by Lisa Napoli.)
While the McDonald’s restaurants have come to be an iconic piece of Americana, Kroc’s life could be held up as a prime example of the American success story. He pulled himself up by his bootstraps, was shrewd in the pursuit of his goals, utilized a visionary approach in his area of expertise and generated massive profits as a result. He was also amoral in the way he treated his business partners, allowed profit to be his focus rather than the quality of the product he was selling, let his ego trump any morality he may have possessed, and once he got all he could out of a person, cast them off like a used cheeseburger wrapper. As Kroc says in the most chilling moment of the film, “If my competitor was drowning, I’d go over and put a hose in his mouth.” No, it doesn’t get more American than that.
Contact Chuck Koplinski at firstname.lastname@example.org.