Michael Keaton has been on a hot streak in this latest phase of his career. While The Founder might not be up there with back-to-back Oscar winners Birdman and Spotlight, it’s certainly a strong choice to present a hit-piece on McDonald’s “founder” Ray Kroc in the same admiringly gauzy biopic style that director John Lee Hancock applied to Saving Mr. Banks and The Blind Side.
For all the bronze bas-relief plaques I used to see back when I went to restaurants like McDonald’s, Kroc’s “founding” of the chain was mostly his own self-mythologizing. The actual chain was started by — not surprisingly — Dick and Mac McDonald (Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch) in San Bernadino, California. The two of them worked out the “Speedee system” that arranged an assembly-line kitchen devoted to hamburgers, cheeseburgers, french fries, and soft drinks, all in a space that would fit within one side of a tennis court. Inside the singles lines.
At the same time in 1954, Kroc was a traveling salesman using a supply-side model to hawk a five-spindled milkshake blender to midwestern drive-ins that didn’t seem to care about getting the order right, let alone fast. But who cares when your clientele is mostly bored juvenile delinquents making out in their cars? It was the latest of Kroc’s get-rich-eventually schemes, and it wasn’t going well. But then he gets an order from a place out in — wait for it — San Bernadino, asking for six of them. Who could want to make thirty milkshakes at a time when he was having trouble convincing anyone they might want to make five? When he calls to verify the order, Mac answers, too busy to really listen, and says six might have been a mistake; better make it eight.
So Kroc heads out to meet the McDonald brothers and hears their story. Obviously there’s only one thing to do: franchise the operation. Except they already tried that, and it didn’t work. Dick can enforce exacting quality control at his own store, but it goes to hell when someone else is in charge. But Kroc is insistent; they draw up a contract giving the McDonalds the final say in any and all changes, and Kroc is off to the races.
Except for all the glamor of opening restaurant after restaurant he’s still only just scraping by on his share of the revenue. And in the meantime he’s alienating his wife, Ethel (Laura Dern), and flirting with the Joan (Linda Cardinelli), the wife of a St. Paul franchisee (Patrick Wilson). Joan comes up with the idea to cut costs by using powdered milkshakes, but Kroc can’t make the change without the McDonalds’ approval.
Keaton knows just how to play this pretender to the McDonald throne. He has to be just the sort of striving, eager, go-getter that Kroc wants to appear to be, but he also has to let the conniver show through that lies inside that sort of person as well. And Offerman and Lynch offer the perfect foils. Offerman’s no-nonsense shop teacher persona adapts nicely to Dick’s systems engineer role, while Lynch is a big teddy bear who always wants to see the good in people, even if they don’t exactly merit that sort of grace.
The Founder upends the usual Great Man story of American innovation. At no point does Kroc come up with an idea on his own. The McDonalds created the assembly-line system that allowed fast-food to work. They even had the idea to franchise, and correctly saw that it was incompatible with their desire for quality. The cost-saving measures he couldn’t use came from other people, and when he finally hits on the secret that actually makes McDonald’s run, right up to the present day, it’s someone else’s idea as well.
The only thing that Ray Kroc can be rightly said to have brought to his table was the persistence in hanging on to the McDonald’s franchise idea long enough to run into someone who could actually make it work. And even that he stole from someone else and tried to pass off as his own.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.