D: John Lee Hancock / 115m
Cast: Michael Keaton, Nick Offerman, John Carroll Lynch, Laura Dern, Linda Cardellini, B.J. Novak, Patrick Wilson, Kate Kneeland, Justin Randell Brooke, Griff Furst
For those of us who live outside the good ole US of A, the idea of the American Dream seems like a typically grandiose American proposition, as if the US is the only place where dreams can come true, where people can become anyone they want to be, or where success can be won if you work really hard to achieve it. At the risk of upsetting any American readers of thedullwoodexperiment, it’s a strange kind of conceit; in reality, what makes the States any different from anywhere else in the world when it comes to people achieving their dreams? The obvious answer is: nothing. But it’s an idea that many Americans believe wholeheartedly, and one that fuels the story of Ray Kroc (Keaton), the man who gave us McDonald’s, the corporate behemoth that grew out of one independent restaurant in San Bernardino, California, and now spans the globe.
When we first meet Kroc it’s 1954. He’s a milkshake mixer salesman who’s about as successful as a butcher at a vegan commune. But he’s his own boss so he keeps plugging away at it, facing rejection at every turn, when one day his secretary, June (Kneeland), tells him they’ve received an order for six mixers from a restaurant in San Bernardino, a place called McDonald’s. Surprised, he decides to visit the owners, Mac and Dick McDonald (Lynch, Offerman), and they elect to tell him their story, one that involves many false starts and setbacks in setting up a burger restaurant, until they realised that by stripping down the menu and speeding up the delivery time, they could maximise their sales. Kroc is astonished by how effective their business is, and finds he can’t stop thinking about it.
The next day he proposes the brothers expand their business into a franchise. But they’ve tried this also, and it hasn’t worked, mostly because they were unable to guarantee the same quality of operation as at their own site. Kroc persuades them to let him take on the challenge, but fearful of what he might do in the process, they get him to sign a contract that states all changes must be agreed by them first. Kroc sets about building the McDonald’s brand but encounters problems when wealthy investors are involved. Instead he tries to attract middle-class couples who will work hard to make their franchise a success. Soon there are franchises opening all across the Midwest, but Kroc is getting little financial reward from it all. His contract gives him a very small percentage of any profits, despite the amount of effort he’s putting in, and the McDonald brothers won’t change the terms.
A chance encounter with a financial consultant, Harry Sonneborn (Novak), sees Kroc changing his approach to both his finances and his relationship with Mac and Dick. By focusing on the real estate needed by the franchisees, Kroc not only increases his own revenue, but is able to leverage his deal with the brothers to make changes to the overall operation, including replacing the ice cream in the milkshakes with powdered milk. The brothers resist, but by this stage, Kroc is effectively the face of McDonald’s to anyone who’s interested. And soon, he’s in a position to force out the brothers from their own business, and continue his expansion of the McDonald’s brand…
Your reaction to The Founder is going to be based on one of two things: whether you feel Ray Kroc was right in the way that he treated the McDonald brothers, or whether you feel that he mistreated them. But Robert D. Siegel’s engaging script isn’t solely about fair or foul play, or whether Kroc is a hero or a villain (like a lot of people he’s both, depending on the circumstances). Rather, it’s also about the very thing Kroc mentions in his opening sales pitch to an off-screen customer, and later to various groups of potential franchisees: opportunity. Ray Kroc was in the right place at the right time, and he instinctively knew that creating a franchise was the way to go. He was blinkered in his attitude, dismissive of his critics, and willing to roll over anyone and anything to make the McDonald’s brand a nationwide success. As he tells the unfortunate Mac and Dick: “If I saw a competitor drowning, I’d shove a hose down his throat.”
Throughout the movie Kroc seizes on opportunity after opportunity, triumphing over every setback and potential obstacle until he gets what he wants. And although you may indeed feel that his treatment of the McDonald brothers was akin to bullying, there’s a kind of grim inevitability to the story that makes Kroc seem like an instrument of Fate. The question then becomes, if Ray Kroc hadn’t met the McDonald brothers, would their one restaurant have grown into a franchise operation with approximately thirty-six and a half thousand outlets worldwide? The movie makes it clear: no. And so the movie becomes about the how (the why is obvious). And if sharp practice is the order of the day, then that’s going to come with a side order of fries and a drink (preferably Coca-Cola).
Inevitably, audiences will decide that Ray Kroc treated the McDonald brothers abominably, because that’s exactly how he treated them. The movie doesn’t shy away from this, or from his shoddy treatment of pretty much everyone around him, and particularly his long-suffering wife Ethel (Dern). As Kroc, Keaton is a mesmerising presence, tightly-wound, arrogant and determined. Even when he’s still, he looks as if fires are raging beneath his skin. In 1954, Kroc was fifty-two and suddenly possessed by an idea that would consume him until his death in 1984, and Keaton displays this “possession” as if it was a calling. But Keaton also shows the venal side of Kroc’s nature, the need to be seen to succeed after so many years toiling in fields of failure, and so the movie also becomes, however uncomfortably, about one man’s redemption through the mistreatment of others.
As the McDonald brothers, both Offerman (in a rare serious role) and Lynch provide equally good performances, showcasing the naïvete and increasing stubbornness that would prove their undoing, and see them forced – eventually – out of the restaurant business. Dern gives a quiet, controlled portrayal as Kroc’s wife, while there’s a cameo role for Wilson as an interested franchisee whose wife (Cardellini) attracts Kroc’s attention. It’s all set against a vibrant period backdrop that highlights the sense of immeasurable promise that the US held for itself in the Fifties, and Hancock marshals the various plot strands and storylines with skill, maintaining the movie’s forward momentum despite several occasions when exposition threatens to overwhelm everything. As a cautionary tale – be careful who you do business with – The Founder is a good example of inexperience (and some degree of pride) going before a fall. It may not be the most positive of messages, but then, not everyone or everything in this world is going to treat you as you yourself would like to be treated, something Ray Kroc, despite his faults, knew all along.
Rating: 8/10 – anchored by a strong, forceful performance by Keaton, The Founder is a judicious mix of history and biography that looks behind the scenes at the beginnings of a global corporation with insight and sincerity; whatever your feelings about the fast-food industry, or McDonald’s specifically, this won’t necessarily change your mind, but as an object lesson in getting what you want – at all costs – then this should be required viewing.