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The Founder (A Movie Review)

Updated: Jul 9, 2023

The Founder

The Founder


Starring Michael Keaton, Nick Offerman, John Carroll Lynch, Laura Dern, Linda Cardellini, B.J. Novak, Patrick Wilson, Justin Randell Brooke, Kate Kneeland, Griff Furst, Wilbur Fitzgerald, David de Vries, Andrew Benator, Cara Mantella, Randall Taylor, Lacey King, Jeremy Madden, Rebecca Ray and Adam Rosenberg.

Screenplay by Robert Siegel.

Directed by John Lee Hancock.

Distributed by The Weinstein Company.  115 minutes.  Rated PG-13.

The ads for The Founder – the bio film about late McDonald’s head Ray Kroc – suggest that the film is a celebration of the triumph of American capitalism.  Perhaps in the Trump era that is exactly what it is.  However, The Founder is also a smart, hard, ironic and somewhat disturbing look at the dark side of the business world.  Although he always put forward a face of a nice, affable everyday guy, The Founder shows just how vicious Kroc could be in order to get what he wanted, and how he always went by the axiom that too much was never enough.  Ray Kroc is both the hero of The Founder and the antagonist.  It’s a neat trick.

Luckily, the character is played by Michael Keaton, who continues his recent winning streak (Birdman, Spotlight) with another Oscar-worthy turn.  He finds all the depth in Kroc – the joviality, the desperation, the anger, the charm, the single-mindedness, the inability to connect on an emotional level, the exceptional drive and ambition – and keeps the man mostly likable and understandable even when he is doing some pretty horrific things.

We are introduced to Kroc in the mid-1950s, when he is already in his 50s and is a traveling salesman trying with little success to move a multi-pronged milkshake mixer to local restaurants and drive-ins.  The story tells us that this is just the latest of a long series of get-rich schemes that the guy has been unsuccessful with.  He travels along the backwaters and stays in sleazy motels listening to a cheesy motivational record on success which insists that it is not genius or talent that makes a man successful, it is drive and tenacity.

Still, Kroc seems to be about at the end of his rope.  Therefore, when he gets a particularly large order from some restaurant he’s never heard of in San Bernardino, California, he decides to make the long drive to check the place out.

What he found was a revolutionary model of quality and efficiency.  Brothers Dick (Nick Offerman) and Mac McDonald (John Carroll Lynch) had been working for decades, through several incarnations, trying to make the perfect restaurant.  They finally figured out that they sold mostly hamburgers, fries and soft drinks.  So they put together a near-assembly line process to make those items – and only those items – and make them fast, hot and tasty.  They got rid of unnecessary expenses like plates and utensils (wrappers and paper bags work fine, thank you…) and even a dining room (McDonald’s had a walk-up window, so you could eat in your car, in the parking lot, in one of the few picnic tables around, or take your food with you).

As a man always on the lookout for the next big thing, Kroc recognized the potential for McDonald’s restaurants worldwide.  However, the McDonalds had already tried unsuccessfully to spread the restaurants, but being perfectionists realized they could not be on top of quality control of restaurants outside of their area.  Eventually they agreed to let Kroc try moving restaurants into the Midwest, but they retained total control and a larger percentage of the profits than Kroc.  Quickly Kroc and the McDonalds were butting heads over innovations and their ideas of the chain.  Kroc quickly became disenchanted with the brothers and their constant meddling into “his” business.

Therefore, Ray Kroc felt no guilt about changing or ignoring contracts that he signed.  And, yes, the McDonalds could be hard-headed about their business, but those were the agreements that he made.  Kroc eventually stole the McDonalds’ business model and name, lowering the quality standards and always putting the bottom line before the product.  He even stole Dick McDonald’s idea of “the golden arches.”  Kroc drove the McDonalds out of the company, eventually driving their original restaurant out of business just for spite.

It was not just the McDonalds that he screwed over on the way to the top.  Harry Sonneborn (BJ Novak), the man who figured out the way that Kroc could actually make money from franchising the restaurants was also unceremoniously forced out not long after he shared his secret with Kroc.  (This is not dramatized, but the fact is shown in the “Whatever happened to?” chyrons during the end credits).  Kroc also stole the wife (Linda Cardellini) of one of his top franchisees (Patrick Wilson), at the same time as he ruthlessly cast aside his long-suffering first wife (Laura Dern).

Like I said, it is the perfect business fantasy for the Trump era.

Interestingly, and this may be a problem for the film, it seems that the millennials are pretty much rejecting the speedy but nutrition free fare that McDonald’s has made its business model on for decades.  For the first time since Kroc turned it into a powerhouse force in the restaurant business, McDonald’s has been struggling to keep their market share, hemorrhaging customers to more health-conscious chains like Subway, Panera, Qdoba, etc.

Considering the chain’s diminishing market share, and the fact that Kroc has been dead for over 30 years and many filmgoers at this point may not even know who he is, may spell a little trouble for box office.  This would be a shame, because like Kroc himself, The Founder is a fascinatingly ambiguous film with two faces.  Some audiences will see it as a triumph of American ingenuity.  Others will see it as an indictment of rapacious capitalism and greed.  All of them will be right.

The irony in The Founder (the title in itself is also ironic, because Kroc only founded McDonald’s in as much as seeing someone else’s idea and stealing it) is that in one way Ray Kroc was right.  McDonald’s would have never become a huge international powerhouse without him.  The McDonald brothers were content to be a big fish in a small pond, their dedication to quality and tradition would have made it impossible for their vision of McDonald’s to spread around the world.  For better or worse, it was his willingness to cut corners and skimp a little on quality that made McDonald’s a viable business model and made Ray Kroc a billionaire.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2017 All rights reserved. Posted: January 20, 2017.


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