In the enjoyably addictive The Founder, Michael Keaton brings alive Ray Kroc, the man who created the global corporate superpower that is McDonald’s. It’s both a vivid portrait of a particular change-maker and a cold-eyed study of exactly what capitalism really rewards.
Speaking of capitalism, it’s hard to imagine a truer believer than Ray Kroc, not even Willy Loman. When we meet Kroc, he is grinding through small town America selling milkshake mixers none too successfully. Each night he retires to yet another dingy motel for heavy doses and Early Times bourbon and a motivational speaker on his portable record player.
Then Kroc stumbles across the McDonald brothers Dick (Nick Offerman) and Mac (John Carroll Lynch). In their Riverside, California, hamburger stand, the McDonald brothers invented the industrialization of food service, their achievement being “fast food” as we know it today. One the most fascinating sequences in The Founder is a flashback of the McDonald brothers designing the most efficient fast food kitchen possible with chalk on a tennis court. The brothers are passionate about their business, equally devoted to their product and their customers.
Kroc falls in love. Having driven through every town in the country as a traveling salesman, he can appreciate the untapped market. He persuades the brothers to let him take over franchising McDonald’s restaurants. It turns out that that the 50ish Kroc is well-equipped for the job because he’s driven, absolutely ruthless and always on the verge of desperation. He HAS to succeed. Kroc is hungry, perpetually hungry, and learns to identify potential franchisees who are not complacent investors, but are who are also driven enough to accept his discipline and run each franchise by the numbers. Egotistical as he is, Kroc is also smart enough to adopt a brilliant idea from someone else – the key to making McDonald’s his.
Dick McDonald is a humorless detail freak with brilliant ideas; Mac is the conflict-avoidant, supportive brother, always unruffling Dick’s feathers and keeping their options alive. Both are proud and true to their values. The McDonald brothers are authentic American business geniuses, but are they too principled to fight off a double cross by Kroc?
In much of the movie, Dick is on phone with Mac listening to Dick’s side of the conversations. Both Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch are superb, but Lynch’s performance is Oscar-worthy. There’s a “handshake” scene where WE know and MAC knows that he is going to get screwed, and Lynch’s eyes in those few seconds are heartbreaking.
As far as I can tell, The Founder is very historically accurate. Thanks to screenwriter Robert D. Siegel (The Wrestler) and director John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side), we also meet some other historical characters – Harry Sonneborn, Fred Turner, June Martino and Joan Smith Kroc – and appreciate their contributions to the McDonald’s business.
The Founder’s Ray Kroc is shitty to his wife (Laura Dern), shitty to his partners and, basically, shitty to his core. But we HAVE to keep watching him. Do we root for him because only HE can build this empire? We Americans have a heritage of empire building. And the idea of someone building something so big and so successful with only his smarts, persistence and opportunism is irresistible to us.
This is a good movie. I’ll even watch The Founder again. And I’ll have fries with that. You can watch it on DVD from Netflix and Redbox or stream it from Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube and Google Play.