By Matthew E. Milliken
Jan. 28, 2017
John Lee Hancock’s new biopic, The Founder, is an only-in-America not-quite-rags-to-mega-riches story.
At the opening of the movie, written by Robert D. Siegel, main character Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton) is a 52-year-old traveling salesman who’s struggling to sell high-volume milkshake blenders at a variety of desultory small-town diners and drive-in restaurants. The Krocs aren’t exactly poor: Ray and Ethel (a typically excellent Laura Dern) have a lovely house in an affluent Illinois community, but they’re certainly not keeping up with the upper-crust Joneses who boast about their overseas vacations during the couple’s infrequent dinners at a lavish local country club.
Then Kroc’s company, Prince Castle Sales, receives an order for six blenders out of nowhere. The baffled salesman calls the San Bernadino, Calif., restaurant that placed the order, certain that there’s been a mistake; after all, why would any place need more than one? And he’s right: It turns out that the restaurant actually needs eight of the blenders, not six. Intrigued, Kroc drives halfway across the country to take a look.
He finds a thriving family-friendly hamburger that fulfills customers’ orders almost instantly but lacks seating, waiters, flatware and silverware. Enthralled by this unconventional setup, Kroc presses an all-too-willing Maurice “Mac” McDonald (John Carroll Lynch) and the somewhat less voluble Dick McDonald (a bare-faced Nick Offerman, almost completely unrecognizable from the mustachioed character he played on Parks and Recreation) for the story behind their operation.
Kroc is captivated by the business and its potential for expansion. “McDonald’s can be the new American church,” Kroc rhapsodizes to the brothers. “And it ain’t just open on Sundays, boys.”
A few scenes later, Kroc has persuaded the skeptical McDonalds to sign a contract that lets him franchise their restaurant. But before too long, Kroc’s enthusiasm for his business partners’ ideas is tempered by his fears that he’s in over his head and his frustration over their steadfast reluctance to let him tweak their formula in even the smallest ways.
Anyone who’s ever driven down a busy commercial road in America knows how this story goes: Kroc will rise to riches as head of a massively successful corporation; he’ll end up marrying to the beautiful Joan Smith (Linda Cardellini), despite her being the wife of a prospective Minnesota franchisee when they first meet; and the McDonald brothers will end up afterthoughts. (After all, the movie isn’t titled The Founders.)
The characters have just enough change and growth to be interesting, but what’s really fascinating about the movie is the way that it shifts the audience’s sympathies as the narrative unspools. Kroc starts off as a more or less lovable loser but goes on to become a ruthless titan of capitalism. (Bear in mind that in Greek mythology, the Titans treated their relatives quite viciously.) The brothers McDonald begin as average Joes with a great business, become inflexible martinets who quash every one of Kroc’s proposed changes and wind up being bulldozed by a corporation with global reach. When Kroc delivers one of the movie’s signature lines — “Contracts are like hearts; they’re made to be broken” — most of me was cringing, but a small part of me cheered to see the main character become a man in full.
One could sum up The Founder by saying that the bad guys win and the good guys lose, but that would be oversimplifying matters. There’s some satisfaction in seeing Kroc turn the tables on his smug country-club acquaintances, who prefer investments that don’t require obsessive attention to detail. It’s also enjoyable to watch some of Kroc’s business associates reap rewards, such as secretary cum-part-owner June Martino (Kate Kneeland) and burger-flipper-cum-CEO Fred Turner (Justin Randell Brooke). The same goes for the middle-class strivers whom Kroc recruits to run franchises, including Leonard and Myra Rosenblatt (Andrew Benator and Cara Mantella), whom Kroc first encounters as the Jewish salesman attempts to peddle high-end Bibles.
Before too long, a wide swath of the public would come to view McDonald’s as something of a corporate villain because it fostered ruthless business practices and peddled unhealthy food. These have been amply described in, for instance, Morgan Spurlock’s 2005 documentary Super Size Me, and the 2001 Eric Schlosser book Fast Food Nation, the latter of which prodded me to cut back on nearly all of my fast-food consumption when I read it around 2006 or so.
But The Founder makes the case that the American consumer also won something. After all, McDonald’s was massively successful because it served up food with a speed, quality and consistency that wasn’t widely available at the time the company began. (Kroc genuinely savors the hamburger he samples on his first visit to San Bernardino.)
After watching The Founder, I was left with two nagging impressions: That Kroc did indeed mold McDonald’s in his own image, as the title implies, and that he left a lot of unnecessary carnage in his wake. In the end, The Founder is a fascinating character study that could well be regarded as an invaluable lesson in both American history and modern capitalism.