When we first heard that The Weinstein Company was making a movie about the origin of McDonald’s, it didn’t sound very appealing. The mind immediately jumps to uncomfortable images of greasy Big Macs and no-breakfast-after-10:30 flashbacks.
But within the first 30 seconds of “The Founder,” we find that it’s not McDonald’s we’ll be spending the next two hours getting to know, but rather the man who made those golden arches — that weren’t even his idea — so iconic.
It’s 1954, and traveling salesman Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton) is on the lookout for a new business venture while selling multi-mixers to drive-ins — often unimpressed by the messy teens and poor service. Then, a restaurant in San Bernardino, California, surprisingly orders eight of his mixers. Curious as to why they’d need to whip up so many milkshakes, Kroc takes makes a beeline for the West Coast, where Dick (Nick Offerman) and Mac (John Carroll Lynch) McDonald run their booming burger joint. Meals are 35 cents a pop and there’s virtually no waiting for your food.
Obsessed with McDonald’s potential, Kroc pitches them: “Franchise the damn thing.” They agree, and we follow the endlessly ambitious Kroc across the country as he edges out the reluctant McDonalds from the business.
It’s the ultimate nice guys versus corporations story. We know who prevails.
It’d be easy for another actor to turn Ray Kroc into a villain, one who stole a homespun dream and greedily turned it into a worldwide institution. Keaton — in the midst of a second career Renaissance — portrays Kroc as a ruthlessly driven man who’s still worthy of sympathy.
When he’s not playing the peppy salesman, Keaton masterfully draws out Kroc’s stubbornness and perfectionism. Kroc’s drive to make McDonald’s an institution manifests itself through frazzled frustration and a single-minded need to be at the top. In other words, he’s admirable and human at his core, not entirely despicable.
Keaton solidifies the middle ground from which the audience must decide whether he is a good or bad man.
The ethical quandaries of “The Founder” don’t simply lie in the character of Kroc, but also in the shady business exchange itself. Comparisons have been made between McDonald’s origin story and Facebook’s, as told in David Fincher’s slimy masterpiece “The Social Network,” but this is no “The Social Network” — and director John Lee Hancock is no David Fincher. McDonald’s just isn’t as relevant to the modern era as Facebook is now. Moreover, while “The Founder” is essentially about the corrupted path of the American dream, the film could’ve gone darker. With the slick 1960s production design and natural charm of Michael Keaton, it’s all just a tad too squeaky clean.
There’s a dinner scene during which the brothers tell Kroc how it all began, from hot dog stand to the “Speedee system” that essentially birthed fast food as we know it. Hancock clutters the history lesson with overly whimsical directorial choices — black and white historical stills, quick cuts, characters finishing each other’s sentences — that make the segment feel tonally out of place. It’s too calculated, and it diminishes the impact that the deeper cuts about capitalism and the American dream could have had.
That’s not to say those themes aren’t resonant in “The Founder.” We see the disintegration of McDonald’s family values (and Ray Kroc’s harmless Midwestern disposition), and capitalism engulfs the fast food chain entirely.
When we first meet the brothers, Lynch plays Mac as an image of positivity, a personable “give him a chance” type of guy. But by the time Dick and Mac McDonald hand over their own name to Ray, Lynch allows the frustration to overtake Mac, eliminating any chance for the underdog to win. It’s a sad story that reveals the harsh realities of making it in America. The film is well-written, even if Hancock resorts to over-stylization.
“The Founder” is a cultural history lesson we never asked for. It’ll leave us wondering what McDonald’s could have been had it remained in the hands of wholesome, well-meaning brothers Dick and Mac — chances are, we wouldn’t have heard of a McDonald’s without one Ray Kroc.