The Founder

Studio: Lionsgate

Apr 26, 2017 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share


The McDonald’s fast food chain is one of the most divisive businesses in the world. Its popularity is surpassed only by the controversy generated solely by its international success. Complaints range from substandard pay and treatment of its employees to unfair business practices and the quality of its food. It’s not unrealistic to suggest that most anyone you ask will have an opinion on the subject.

John Lee Hancock’s latest release, The Founder, has been an impressive sleeper hit. In a refreshing yet surprisingly unsentimental manner, Hancock documents the rise of Ray Kroc, the man who “founded” McDonald’s.

In the beginning, Kroc (portrayed masterfully by Michael Keaton), is a well-meaning, earnest but hapless restaurant salesman, one who routinely has to take no for an answer. He’s leading himself to a Willy Loman fate, slowly growing older, broker, and drunker. As the film progresses, we learn that the product he was touting in the beginning of the film—a multiple-unit milkshake mixer—wasn’t nearly as absurd or impractical as other items he’d sold in prior jobs, laughable contraptions that earned him derision.  Down on his luck after his latest rejection, providence calls—in the form of a multiple order from a small California chain, owned and operated by brothers Richard and Maurice McDonald.

Kroc is instantly enthralled by the efficiency he sees. The brothers have streamlined their kitchen process so thoroughly that Kroc is astonished to have his food handed to him in less than a minute’s time. Intrigued, he befriends the brothers, asking to hear their story and their philosophy. The process is unlike anything he’s ever seen, and he wants in, convinced that this is how a burger shop should operate, and that there’s no way something so mechanically precise could possibly fail.

But therein was the problem: the McDonald brothers had failed. Attempts to franchise and branch out in other areas were hampered by their obsessiveness and their desire to control every aspect of the operation, from gauging the time and temperature of the French Fries to the precise number of pickles on each burger. Kroc soon realized this fixation on perfection was the brothers’ Achilles heel; they were visionaries, not businessmen.  Older brother Maurice (John Carroll Lynch) is enthusiastic; he sees Kroc as a man who can make their visions of success a reality, while Dick (Nick Offerman) is initially and permanently skeptical of their new partner.

But Kroc—who as a seemingly washed-up middle-aged salesman—knows he has magic, and he sets out to the Midwest to make his vision a reality, and even though his initial investors are skeptical, as is his wife, Ethyl, he stands firm. Thus, when he breaks ground on 400 N. Lee Street in Des Plains, Illinois, he isn’t just opening the “first” McDonald’s restaurant, he’s igniting a legacy that is still going strong, 62 years later. Nobody seems to believe that the restaurant would ever be more than that, but Kroc, as he runs his hands through the soil of that first lot, never seems to doubt that his idea would be anything less than the best.

Almost instantly, problems arise. Kroc, in hopes of getting a deal with the brothers, settled on a terribly unfavorable contract, one that soon found him running out of money, even though his restaurants were all strong financial investments. Dick McDonald, always skeptical, only created more hassles for Kroc, being a ‘no’ man, vetoing ideas that would help improve business, in order to stay true to his vision of efficiency. Kroc essentially goes rogue, not necessary out of spite, but because that’s the only way he can keep from losing everything. As financial crises loom, he soon learns that he had been misguided about what McDonald’s should be—he focused on the perfect restaurant, not realizing that his vision should be strictly on real estate. Instead of building the restaurant on land the franchisees purchased and then sending them on their way, Kroc discovers that the key to financial reward is to own the land, lease the building, and hold the franchisees to a strict contract that ensures if they did not tow the company line, Kroc and company would effectively revert ownership back to the company.  

The nature of business is cutthroat, and Kroc suddenly changes from unctuous salesman to unscrupulous businessman. Though Kroc is alienating himself from the McDonald brothers through his actions and his wilfull ignoring of the deals of their contract, Kroc only sees his actions as being for the good of the company and of the brothers—the two men who invented the idea. Kroc, in spite of his frustrations with the brothers, never sees himself as being disloyal. When Kroc in the hospital room after Dick McDonald has a heart attack after an argument, he presents the ailing McDonald with a blank check. Surprisingly, Keaton plays this scene in such a manner that makes one think Kroc didn’t do so out of coldness or maliciousness; instead, Kroc, true believer in the McDonald’s method, saw that his partners were unhappy with him, and he wanted to rectify the conflict.  Keaton plays the scene in such a brilliant, heartfelt way that one never feels Kroc was aware of just how cold his actions were.

It’s here that Michael Keaton shines as an actor. He so subtly transforms Kroc from likeable, naïve dreamer that one finds amusing into a man so driven by the bottom line that he doesn’t mind stepping on the toes of the people who provided him with the idea that made him a billionaire. By The Founder’s end, Keaton’s Kroc is so despicable that one can’t stand to look at him with anything less than contempt.  That he pushed the McDonald brothers aside wasn’t surprising; he not only took their one brilliant idea, he then forced them to close the store where it all began.

When, at the end of the film, he speaks lovingly of the brilliance and the innovation that was to be found in the very first McDonald’s restaurant, it’s the Des Plaines, Illinois store; no mention is made of the San Bernardino restaurant—or of the McDonald brothers.

Yet when Kroc buys out the brothers, he makes a sad but true statement: that even though they’ve lost their invention, he had made them wealthier than they had ever could have been; they weren’t businessmen, and couldn’t have achieved international success on their own. He’s right about that, and Dick’s observation that they’d be forgotten about in their own history is correct as well. This fact is underscored in the end credits; while the fates of Kroc, his wife, and those who worked with him to make him successful are shared there’s absolutely no mention of whatever became of Maurice and Richard McDonald, other than to say they never received royalties. Once again, the visionaries are written out of their own history.

But hey, that’s not personal; it’s business.

The Founder may be an unflattering portrait about the rise of a fast food mogul, but the film itself is a surprisingly well-made film that brilliantly tells what is in essence a rather dull story of entrepreneurial success. Much like Bruce Springsteen’s “Born In The USA” can be taken as either patriotic anthem or scathing criticism of Reagan’s vision of America, The Founder could be taken as a cautionary tale about the nature of capitalism, or an inspiring story of what happens when someone is persistent with a vision and a dream that they know will prove fruitful. However way you choose to interpret it, one thing rings clear: The Founder is simply one of the finest movies of the year.




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