THE FOUNDER warns that something in the milkshake ain’t clean
Going in, how much you know about McDonald’s famous tycoon, Ray Kroc, will probably determine how you feel at the end of The Founder. Although I love biographies, I hadn’t yet gotten around to Kroc’s, so all I knew was that he was the McDonald’s guy, that he was a perfectionist, and that he would occasionally show up at random locations for quality-control spot-checks. I figured that this would be a movie about a guy who built an empire from a roadside burger stand, maybe a downtrodden comeback story, or a feel-good bio-pic. Turns out I was right about all three…just not in the ways I’d anticipated.
The Founder starts off with traveling milkshake mixer salesman Kroc (Michael Keaton (Spotlight (2015), Minions (2015)) pounding the pavement trying to sell the idea that supply (an abundance of milkshakes) would lead to demand (for said milkshakes). Mom-and-pop drive-ins don’t have the need for or the interest in something quite that ambitious, so most of his days end with a strong drink or three and motivational records in threadbare motels rooms. During a routine call to the home office, Kroc is surprised to hear that a San Bernadino restaurant called McDonald’s has ordered six…no, make that eight!…of his mixers, and curiosity leads him to check out the restaurant for himself.
McDonald brothers Dick and Mac (Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch) have created a wildly successful business model for their burger stand: efficiency, quality and customer service. The food is good and the McDonalds’ genuine value system guides their course. Kroc is impressed and, after a lot of convincing, gets Dick and Mac to go into business with him and franchise the restaurant across the country.
Although initially the partnership seems to be a good idea, the strain in the professional relationship starts showing almost immediately. Dick and Mac are truly satisfied with their one bustling location, taking care of their employees and serving the community like an extended family. Sure, the money is a plus, but their commitment to the McDonald’s brand, along with Mac’s tenuous health, allow them to find satisfaction in what they have.
Kroc, on the other hand, sees only the potential for improvement, expansion and therefore profit. Each proposed change is met with resistance by the McDonald brothers (who legally retained the final say in all matters), and frustration turns to ruthlessness when Kroc realizes he’ll never make money as long as they do things the friendly way. Goodbye feel-good bio-pic!
The Founder doesn’t pull any punches as we follow Kroc’s growing ambition and dwindling scruples, but it’s an interesting ride. Initially we’re rooting for Kroc, just as we are pulling for any character that is truly trying but can’t quite catch the brass ring. Hooking up with the likeable McDonald brothers continues that good feeling. Even the cinematography itself lures you in to this Pleasantville-type world: the colors are bright, the cars are shiny, and even that “undesirable element” (teenagers) hanging around the drive-ins is pretty sanitized.
That’s why it’s such a shock when we realize that Kroc is not just a bit of a hustler, or a persistent pain in the butt. His overt leering at a franchisee’s wife is uncomfortable to witness, and you can’t help but sympathize with his own long-suffering wife, Ethel (Laura Dern (Certain Women (2016)), who is essentially abandoned like an empty burger wrapper. Keaton takes the character there at such an unhurried pace (especially remarkable since his Kroc seems semi-manic) that it’s genuinely unsettling when, by the end, we see him for the sociopath he becomes…or is finally shown to have been all along.
McDonald’s (the restaurant) isn’t the villain in this film, and to be fair, it’s questionable if Kroc is either. Is being successful bad? Is ambition a character flaw? Shouldn’t the McDonald brothers have maybe been a little more flexible off the bat? All valid questions, but if you take no other lessons from The Founder, just remember never to do business on a handshake deal.