Long before it became the world’s largest global fast-food empire, McDonalds was just a small family restaurant feeding the citizens of San Bernardino. The kind of established you want to support because it provided quality service and stable employment for the community. But all that changed when struggling businessman Ray Kroc bit into his first McDonald’s hamburger, and the fantastic new film The Founder shows how he transformed this once tiny eatery into a franchised phenomenon. And admirably The Founder’s fascinating history is complimented by inspired and lively filmmaking with strong performances and clever dialogue. It’s a real treat.
Michael Keaton gives a stellar performance as the title “founder” Ray Kroc, creating wonderful little quirks emphasizing his character’s dim-witted but ambitious personality. Just the way Keaton puts his hands behind his hips sell Kroc’s nature. It’s the 1950’s and Kroc’s pathetic salesman repeatability fails as he attempts selling fancy milkshake makers to reluctant drive-thru owners. They don’t see the potential in a milkshake maker that can make up to five drinks at a time. That is until he learns a small restaurant in San Bernardino orders not just one, but eight milkshake makers. Initially believing this anomaly some sort of mistake, he travels across the country determined to learn more about this restaurant called McDonald’s.
Standing in front of the original San Bernardino building, he can’t believe his eyes: a long line of customers stretches far behind the order window and yet moves forward at a rapid speed. Kroc enters the line and quickly reaches the front, purchases a hamburger and amazingly receives his order in a matter of seconds. Its wrapped in paper and without plates and utensils. Director John Lee Hancock cleverly and effectively illustrates how startlingly new this style of service is and just how positively it was received by American families.
Kroc soon meets the McDonald Brothers, Dick (Nick Offerman) and Mac (John Carrol Lynch), and they quickly give him a behind-the-scenes tour of the kitchen. Food is served using the “Speedie System,” an assembly line style of cooking. Again, Hancock wisely provides modern audiences great detail of just how innovative this was back in the 1950’s, especially with rarlier scenes prior showing old and poorly run drive-thru restaurants, and the contrast between the two clear and thought-provoking. The “Speedie System” will change how the world eats, and Kroc instantly knows he wants a piece of it. The rest of the film shows how he grew and franchised the company while shrinking the quality-controlled products and service the McDonald Brothers fully believed and took pride in.
Interestingly, the McDonald Brothers and Kroc are two classic, yet completely different, American rags to riches stories. The brothers, while not exactly swimming in wealth, came from nothing to successfully create a stable financial reality for themselves. For years, they worked tirelessly and through their creativity and ingenuity innovated a unique and profitable brand of quality service. On the other hand, Kroc isn’t exactly brimming with inventiveness. He pitiably listens to self-help records to reassure he holds potential greatness. But Kroc is able to recognize a good idea when he sees one and works tirelessly to make that idea benefit him. He works off the genius of others and is always willing to accept better new information and ideas. I love how Hancock, Keaton, and screenwriter Robert D. Siegel never make him stubborn with his reception of other people’s ingenuity. It’s insightful, wise, and honest. And also unlike the brothers, Kroc’s greed and selfish ego prove more powerful than his moral conscience. Translation: bigger profits. The dichotomy makes for a fascinating study of the American Dream.
Unfortunately, the film isn’t perfect. Laura Dern plays Kroc’s wife, and her scenes aren’t on par with the rest of the picture. Her performance is fine, but her moments make for the standard “wife is unhappy because the husband is busy” plotline. Also, the movie probably would have been more daring had it dug deeper into its darker, more humorous moments.
Small issues aside, The Founder is a very strong and provocative entertainment that should not be missed. In full disclosure, after leaving the theater, I happened upon a McDonald’s. I entered the drive-thru, ordered a McDouble, paid little, and quickly found myself finishing the hamburger, my hunger barely