ICYMI: The Founder (2016)
I grew up at McDonald’s. What red-blooded American child from suburbia didn’t? Every trip was a treat or a gift be it celebrating a special occasion or just giving my hard-working mother a night off from having to cook. The food was delicious, reasonably priced and incredibly unhealthy. I wouldn’t learn of the true evils of McDonald’s until Morgan Spurlock’s eye-opening documentary Super Size Me. But regardless, McDonald’s is an institution and it’s hard to imagine growing up in the USA without it.
2016’s The Founder gives us the true and unvarnished story of how Ray Kroc brought “McDonald’s” to the American people, after he stole the idea and all of it’s accompanying arcana and innovations from Dick and Mac McDonald. Michael Keaton is uncompromisingly charismatic as Ray Kroc in an Oscar-worthy performance. By no means is this meant to be a hatchet job - Keaton gives us a smart and passionate Kroc but sadly his only passion is making as much money as humanly possible.
As the film begins, we see Kroc as a struggling traveling salesperson. We soon learn this is the latest of many gambits that he has had to justify to his long-suffering wife (a very sympathetic Laura Dern). His travels bring him to a small town in California where he is following up on a surprising order of his milkshake machine. He finds a bustling hamburger joint unlike anything he has ever seen. His first discovery is ordering a hamburger and just as he asks how long it will take, it is placed in a bag in front of him.
Ray seeks out the owners, the genial Mac (John Carroll Lynch) and the suspicious Dick (Nick Offerman) who are courteous enough to shepherd this salesperson behind the curtain of their operations. They talk about how this is the latest manifestation of their restaurant dreams and that they were desperate to avoid another car hop where customers (mostly teens) can occupy space without ordering sufficiently. Their idea is to get the food out fast and get the customers on their way. In a very entertaining montage, we watch the genesis of their “fast food” system with chalk diagrams drawn on tennis court floors and employees being put through a seeming gauntlet to work fast in minimal space.
Ray sees a goldmine, though it could just be another in a long line of his get-rich-quick schemes and talks the brothers into letting him be an agent to franchise the operation. Dick and Mac are happy with the status quo and very leery of this fast-talking stranger but, like many over the course of film, reluctantly relent to Ray Kroc’s devious tenacity. Ray is very good at finding investors for this “McDonald’s” idea but his two main stumbling blocks are 1) having to supervise each location to be exactly like the San Bernardino location and 2) making very little percentage-wise by allowing the McDonald's brothers to make the lion’s share of profits.
As time goes on, Ray Kroc finds ways to undercut the “pesky” McDonald's brothers and make a move to develop HIS dynasty. It costs him his marriage and in a very telling scene he is willing to give his soon-to-be ex anything she wants in their settlement but not a single share or dollar from his McDonald’s venture. Ray’s brand of business morality inhabits every aspect of his life, best personified as he woos and eventually marries the wife of a recruited investor (played by an appealing Linda Cardellini).
The film was directed by John Lee Hancock (The Rookie and The Blind Side) from a screenplay by Robert Siegel (The Wrestler) and I am truly surprised how this film was completely ignored in the winter of 2016. Perhaps it was seen as the complete antithesis of Hancock’s previous feel-good fare so the studio felt an ad campaign would have been wasted. But The Founder is a very entertaining and insightful look into the making of an “American Success.” Now, good luck eating at McDonald’s and not think about the billions that Mac and Dick were screwed out of.
FYI – In her later life, Joan Kroc became an extraordinary philanthropist. I strongly recommend reading Ray & Joan: The Man Who Made the McDonald's Fortune and the Woman Who Gave It All Away by Lisa Napoli to learn even more.