Ray Kroc’s name is synonymous with McDonald’s, the ubiquitous fast food institution that hasn’t needed an introduction for the entire time I’ve been alive. It seems strange that I’ve never known much about him even after living in Chicago for almost 20 years—at least, not until The Founder. Then again, maybe I still don’t.
Kroc (Michael Keaton) is a middle aged traveling salesman who hocks milkshake mixers to restaurants, mainly drive-ins and diners, in the 1950s. Based in Chicago, he has a nice enough home in suburban Arlington Heights, a supportive if not ambitious wife, Ethel (Laura Dern), and the means to afford a country club membership. Nonetheless, Kroc is neither wildly successful nor affluent. He isn’t setting the world on fire selling milkshake mixers, and his business ideas never seem to pan out. He doesn’t fit in with the WASPy professionals Ethel gravitates toward. Being the entrepreneur he is, he yearns for more.
While making cold calls in Missouri, Kroc gets a big order for mixers from San Bernardino, California. He drives out there and finds McDonald’s, an idyllic burger joint owned and operated by two brothers, affable Mac (John Carroll Lynch) and crusty Dick (Nick Offerman). Shiny and clean, the place is a welcoming sight. Mac shows Kroc the kitchen: it’s an intricate and super-efficient assembly line that delivers consistenly appetizing product in minutes. Disposable packaging means customers can take their food with them and eat it wherever they want, keeping the line moving while eliminating the need for clean up (not to mention dishes). Employees work together as a team. The customer service is flawlessly friendly. Dick explains that high-quality food and fast service are the hallmarks of McDonald’s. The brothers have hit something with their formula: the place is slammed with a customer base that overwhelmingly consists of middle class families. Kroc wants to franchise McDonald’s, something the brothers tried before but it didn’t work.
The Founder focuses less on Kroc’s personal life and more on the many problems he overcomes in executing his ambitious plan to make McDonald’s and its Golden Arches a symbol of America that seemlessly fits, as he puts it at one point, right in with the Stars and Stripes and crosses on churches. There’s a lot of dry stuff dealing with the nuts and bolts of business here—business models, contract negotiations, marketing, quality control, real estate, financing, trademarks, cutting costs, and of course double crossing. It’s a timely film—I can’t think of a more fitting movie to see on this particular Inauguration Day: one of the promotional posters for The Founder calls Kroc a rule breaker, a risk taker, and a game changer, and for better or worse that’s what he turned out to be. Michael Keaton is perfect for this role, playing Kroc as a ruthlessly driven goofball who has no good ideas of his own but certainly knows how to capitalize on those of others. American history is rich in such characters.
That said, I must admit that I have no idea how much of this story is accurate—not that I was compelled to find out on my own. The Founder doesn’t make me care. Pieces of the story seem to be missing. Robert Siegel’s script isn’t exactly objective—it borders on propaganda, especially when he overemphasizes the simplicity of the McDonald brothers. John Lee Hancock is a capable director, but he’s so ambiguous about his subject that he doesn’t say what he makes of him. I’m not sure he knows. His treatment lacks a certain nuance the material demands that could’ve made The Founder a lot more than it is. It’s not a terrible film, but I had higher expectations.
Also starring B.J. Novak, Linda Cardellini, Patrick Wilson, Justin Randell Brooke
Produced by FilmNation Entertainment, The Combine, Faliro House Productions S.A.
Distributed by The Weinstein Company