Director: John Lee Hancock
Writer: Robert D. Siegel (as Robert Siegel)
Stars: Michael Keaton, Nick Offerman, John Carroll Lynch
To say that The Founder is the story of the beginnings of the world’s biggest fast food franchise would be like saying that Richard and Maurice McDonald were responsible for the global brand we know today. This is the story of the ruthless, opportunistic, but charming, Ray Kroc (Keaton).
Kroc is a travelling salesman trying, unsuccessfully, to sell milkshake machines to burger joints and diners when he gets a message saying there’s a place in California that wants to buy six from him. Due to the unusually high amount, Kroc believes this to be a mistake and calls the restaurant to check. When a harassed and obviously busy Dick (Offerman) answers he confirms that a mistake has indeed been made but wants to increase the order to eight machines. Intrigued that a lowly burger joint could be so busy, Kroc makes the long drive out west to have a look at this inexplicably popular venue.
When he arrives there are long queues of excited patrons (one of whom assures him that the lines move quickly) in a busy, family friendly environment. When he’s promptly served by a friendly employee, no sooner has Kroc paid for his food he reviews his order. He’s convinced that there’s been some kind of mistake given the speed in which he was given his burger and fries. He is also bemused by the disposable packaging, the lack of waiting staff and that he’s instructed to either eat in his car or take his order home, given that there’s nowhere to sit at this place and he’s in awe of the military precision of the open-plan kitchen.
As he sits eating his food eating his food, alongside a young family, he surveys the scene – a bustling, hugely popular restaurant called McDonalds. When Dick’s brother Maurice “Mac” McDonald (Lynch) introduces himself to Kroc the latter gushes about the whole operation and the meal itself. Mac invites Kroc for a tour of the premises and, desperate to know more about the business, invites both brothers for dinner to hear their story.
Over steaks, Dick and Mac frantically tell their amazing story – from humble beginnings in New Hampshire, to dreaming about making it big in the movie business; from their stint as movie theatre owners in Glendora, to the 1929 crash which almost wiped them out; from seeing how a depression-era hot dog and root beer stand was the only thing that was making money at that time, to their own (admittedly) plagarised version which sold hot dogs and OJ; from their 27 item menu drive-in diner in San Benardino to their current streamlined business model.
They told Kroc about how they got rid of the Jukeboxes, cigarette machines, crockery and cutlery and how they cut waiting time from 30 minutes to 30 seconds. They regailed him of Dick’s obsessive pursuit of perfection, outlining a chalk kitchen on a tennis court and have a team of staff choreograph an imaginary dinner service until it was a symphony of efficiency. Dick wanted not only a customised kitchen which suits the exact needs of the business, but a customised service totally unique to McDonalds. An enthralled Kroc hears how the early days of McDonalds were a disaster. People didn’t get it. Where were the waitresses on rollerskates zooming between cars? Why were the burgers wrapped in paper? Until one day a kid shows up and buys a bag of burgers, quickly followed by scores of cars full of people who fnally understood. The burger Kroc ate on that bench to 30 years to perfect.
But Kroc, as much as he admires the business model, sees McDonalds as something else. He draws comparisons between the Golden Arches and both the American flag and church crosses. McDonalds should be part of the American fabric. He sets about trying to convince the brothers that the business model should be replicated through franchises. But they’re reluctant as they’ve already tried. The impossibility to manage several restaurants in many different locations and the difficulty in controlling the managers from straying from their simple menu of burgers, fries and shakes proved to be too much for Mac’s health and the vowed to focus on their first store in San Benardino. But with Kroc’s persistence they agree to try it again, drawing up a complex contract in which every major decision goes through them.
Several new locations, complete with Golden Arches, open gradually. Ray and his long-suffering wife Ethel (Dern) convince the Kroc’s golf club buddies to invest in the new scheme. Upon visiting one of his pal’s new franchises he learns that they’re altering the menu to include fried chicken and putting lettuce on the burgers. The restaurants are poorly maintained and they’ve installed Jukeboxes. Ray is furious until he hits upon the idea of ditching his golf club chums in favour of hard-working, middle-class married couples to open up new restaurants, cementing the idea that McDonalds is all about American family values.
Things are looking even better for Ray when wealthy, experienced independent restaurant owner Rollie Smith (Wilson) reaches out to become part of the fast food revolution. But Ray is even more interested in Smith’s wife Joan (Cardellini). This is the first sign that Ray is going solo by announcing to the table that the restaurant in Illinois was the first ever McDonalds, signalling his intent to erase Dick and Mac from the history of the fast food chain.
New restaurants are opening at an impressive rate but the running costs are delivering slow returns. Ray is again seen to be willing to change the rules midway through the game when he attempts to renegotiate the terms of his original contract with the brothers only to be met with a firm ‘no’. When Joan appraches Ray with the idea of cutting the cost of stocking and freezing the ice cream used for making milkshakes by replacing it with powdered sachets mixed with water, Ray loves the idea. Dick and Mac are less than unhappy that Kroc would sully their menu with an inferior product for the sake fo profit.
By chance, Ray is approached by Harry Sonneborn (B.J. Novak), a highly ambitious financial consultant who points out that the franchise owners lease the land the restaurants are built on from a third party. Harry suggests, through attracting investors, that Ray should set up his own company to buy the land and lease that back to the franchise owners. “You’re not in the burger business. You’re in the real estate business” Harry tells him. Thus making McDonalds what it is today.
Michael Keaton is exceptional as the energetic and devious Kroc. He is played with little empathy and he doesn’t have to be. Kroc doesn’t lie per se. He doesn’t have to. Nor does he have to pretend to be everyone’s best pal. Keaton really reigns it in where others would go nuts in the same role. His understated performance is a joy to watch.
Dern’s performance as Ethel is solid but there’s a feeling that’s she’s really underutilised here. She sits in the background, while Kroc goes about conquering America. This is intentional, of course. We see everything from Kroc’s perspective and, as he’s the most selfish individual in America, it’s probably right that we don’t see how badly his actions affect her. However, if you’ve got Laura Dern, use her to break your heart!
Nick Offerman is wonderful as the stoic, methodical half of the McDonald brothers. His straight-lacedness is often hilarious when dealing with the less than pragmatic Kroc. John Carroll Lynch is joyous. Deliviering his best performance since Fargo as the always hopeful and optimistic Mac is simply brilliant.
The Founder is less about burgers, more about greed, opportunism and the distortion of the always vague notion of the American Dream. It’s a thoroughly entertaining reminder that those guys who hock burgers aren’t doing it for anything other than the last penny in your pocket. Through brilliant, careful marketing we can believe that any big business is there for our benefit. And Ray Kroc knew this better than anyone.
The Founder is thoroughly enjoyable with a few great performances, several laughs and a few nods to the myths and legends of McDonalds. However, it feels like a missed opportunity to explore the depths Kroc went to in his ruthlessness and the effects of it. Almost everyone who had dealings with Kroc lost out in the end. He had it his way. Wait, that’s the other guys, isn’t it?