In The Founder, the resurgent Michael Keaton (Spider Man: Homecoming) plats Ray Kroc, the man behind the staggeringly successful McDonalds empire. When I first heard of this movie, it didn’t seem all that interesting to me. Ubiquity, I feel, tends to make people take things for granted, render them too familiar – and familiarity doth breed contempt, right? How many movies have there been about captains of industry? Biographies tend to be about those who have done things that made a difference in people’s lives, or embroiled in scandal. But a movie about the guy who invented McDonalds (I’ll explain that comment later) just seems somehow unnecessary. Turns out, it’s a pretty good movie.
I’m sure there are a lot of people who’ve literally never eaten anything from McDonalds, but the numbers of people who have are astounding. It’s not a go-to place for me, but I’ve eaten there a number times, and sampled enough of their menu that I know it’s never going to become a go-to place. But the food isn’t terrible – you may argue with that from a personal level, but your opinion would fly in the face of the company’s overwhelming success. McDonald’s is one of the biggest corporations on the planet, and if you ever wondered why, the story is right there on Wikipedia – but watch The Founder first.
It’s the story of three people, actually. There’s Ray Kroc, of course, and if you don’t know the story (I only had a vague idea of the company’s history) you may wonder why the company is called McDonald’s. The movie tells this story. Prior to meeting Dick and Maurice McDonald (Nick Offerman and John Carrol Lynch), Kroc was a struggling salesman putting in long road hours trying to sell one gadget after another, and listening to motivational records in cheap, lonely motel rooms. But Kroc has one of the qualities espoused in the one record we hear: persistence. You feel for the guy early on; in the opening scenes he cuts a frustrated figure trying to sell a multi spindle milkshake blender to people who don’t care. But you can tell that this device actually makes a lot of sense, and from that, you understand that Kroc is not just a guy peddling “the next big thing”, he’s someone who feels he knows what the “next big thing” should be, it’s the others who don’t get it. And this, essentially, is the story of McDonalds. When a small San Bernardino diner orders an unprecedented six of these blenders, upped, in a phone call, to eight, Kroc heads across country to meet the brothers, and is amazed at the innovative approach they’ve developed to the food service industry. Dubbed the “Spee-Dee” system, it’s the assembly line principle of industrial manufacturing that led to the common phrase “fast food” we use today. Dick McDonald is the pig headed of the two brothers, running a tight ship with the control-freak obsessiveness that led to both the success of the company, and to the failure of his dream. Maurice is the more passive of the two, but it’s his selflessness that leads Dick to listen to Kroc’s eagerness to expand the concept.
From this point, the movie charts the meteoric rise of the McDonald’s franchise, but the movie is not called McDonald’s, it’s called The Founder, and it focuses almost solely on the efforts of Kroc, sometimes in opposition to the brothers McDonald, and as a biopic it does a good job showing the ups and downs of the subject. The accuracy of the story is as debatable, as any movie based on a “true” story is, but as I’ve said in other reviews, the first job of a movie is to entertain, and I was entertained throughout. Kroc is not exactly depicted in a negative light – even when some of his actions seem questionable, there are other scenes in the movie that imply justification. When Kroc announces to his wife during dinner that he wants a divorce, it’s after years (and many scenes) of obvious incompatibility, not because he’s prone to having affairs on the road. When he decides to ignore the agreement he entered into with the McDonald brothers, it’s after Dick McDonald has shot down every idea and suggestion Kroc has tried to discuss with him. The decisions Kroc takes in the movie all seem pretty justifiable, and perfectly in character for the man: he’s driven by the need to succeed, but you never get the sense that it’s a soulless, greed-driven life. I wondered if that was the case in real life, because what you don’t get in the movie is a feeling of consequence. Throughout, the opening of franchises across the country are as easy as Kroc pitching the concept, then signing contracts. It’s all handled like shorthand. So too, when he falls for the wife of a Minneapolis restauranteur (Linda Cardellini and Patrick Wilson), it’s filmed as an innocent love-at-first-sight moment. There’s no follow up on the effect on that marriage, even though, as you may have already taken from this review, there was a massive effect on that marriage. There is something about the movie that makes the building of the McDonald’s empire, and the transformation of Kroc from struggling door-to-door salesman to wealthy entrepreneur, as something that was relatively easy, and I’m willing to bet that was never actually the case.
There’s something that’s ultimately satisfying about watching a well made biopic, even if, like me, you come away from it feeling key moments were glossed over. I was grabbed by the story immediately. I’m a long time fan of Keaton, and I’m really happy to be able to watch him in movies that are not called White Noise or Robocop. I felt that losing out on the Academy Award for Birdman might have returned him to that kind of movie scrapheap, but I’m glad that hasn’t been the case. I’d like to think that he might enjoy a late-career renaissance, and maybe he changed agents in the recent past to get him to this point. He’s great all through The Founder, but so too are the supporting cast. Offerman plays Dick McDonald with same kind of curmudgeonly demeanor he gives to most roles, and it works here. Laura Dern, in a smaller role as Kroc’s wife, conveys the wasting emptiness of a marriage of mismatched people, and her scenes give the movie its humanity.
About 20 years ago my wife and I stopped at the McDonald’s in Dekalb, Illinois on our way from The Quad Cities to Chicago, and I received such shitty customer service and product, that, incensed, I said I’d never eat at McDonalds again. My resolve lasted around 7 years, thanks to other companies having long ago adopted the Spee-Dee concept to provide quick, cheap dining. I think it was the McRib that brought me back into the fold, and since then, I eat at McDonald’s five to ten times a year. Like WalMart, Target, GM, and all those other giants, I never really cared about what went into making these companies what they were, and I can’t say that I care about McDonald’s now that I’ve seen the movie. But the movie is a movie, and I cared enough about it to give it
© Andrew Hope, 2017