The true story of how Ray Kroc, a salesman from Illinois, met Mac and Dick McDonald, who were running a burger operation in 1950s Southern California. Kroc was impressed by the brothers’ speedy system of making the food and saw franchise potential. He maneuvered himself into a position to be able to pull the company from the brothers and create a billion-dollar empire.
The Founder is a movie about success. Despite the title, it is not quite a personal story. Tellingly, it's more a movie about how a brand was born – a biography of an idea if you like. That’s the first clue that this is a film with very mixed feelings about its central figure.
Set in the '50s, it's fashioned as an underdog tale of visionary entrepreneurial zeal with 21st century parallels in the poster-boys of modern business – the Jobs, Zuckerberg’s et al. It has a deep admiration for the ‘go’ in its go-getter hero. Yet, he’s a guy who leaves heartbreak in his wake.
In a way, it’s a pursuit story where the hero, that dogged GI in the American business battlefield, the travelling salesman, is presented with a series of obstacles that get between him and his goal: part of the fun of the movie is watching him play smarter and beat the conservative thinkers who stand in his way. Still, it’s an ironic tale with a sour aftertaste. This guy sees the future. You’re rooting for him all the way. Until of course he gets to the point where his passion turns predatory. If he can’t win it in a fair deal, he’ll just steal it.
Here’s a guy who thinks corporate when everyone else thinks family-business and in the end, he’s a louse. The movie pulls off the neat trick of suspending the impulse to hate him. Part of that ingenuity is in the casting. Michael Keaton plays the title role, McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc. When cast to play a regular dude, Keaton has a native warmth and fragility. All he needs to do here is pick his teeth while lying to his secretary about his chances for a sale and we can read the panic in the gesture – and admire him for the way he avoids any risk of self-pity.
Kroc’s story – that is the McDonald’s corporate origin tale - is well known and scrutinised through the lens of enterprise, it makes a compelling and admirable model for the business advocate.
Kroc had genuine talent. He began to build the McDonald’s empire in the '50s based on interlacing franchising the brand with real estate, maintaining quality control and convincing the public customer experience was the No.1 priority. When Kroc died aged 81 in 1984, the business chain had over 7,500 stores across the globe valued at US$8 billion dollars. Today the public company founded on the golden arches has close to 36,625 stores in 119 countries. This has been mythologised as a triumph of American business acumen.
But its also true Kroc squeezed out the true founders of the fast-food empire, two brothers called McDonald - Dick (Nick Offerman) and Mac (John Carroll Lynch) - who had been running a tight little business in San Bernadino for years when Kroc met them in 1953. At the time, Kroc was a road salesman flogging milkshake machines door to door.
Once Kroc took over McDonald’s, he took the credit for all the brother’s ideas and their name and made them rich in the process. Of course in the business world, this narrative could be constructed not as victory, but a bleak lesson in the dangers of not knowing a good thing when you see one.
Tone was always going to be an issue in developing this yarn for the movies. As director John Lee Hancock said recently, the raw material could be developed in any number of ways: as a dark penetrating story of a mogul who fails as a human being (Citizen Kane or There Will Be Blood), as a barbed satire (The Wolf of Wall Street) or, as a story of betrayal (The Social Network).
Hancock using a screenplay by Robert Siegel (The Wrestler) and rumoured to be highly worked over has opted for an angst-free mood and go for a style that reminded me of light social comedy/drama: a bit like early Barry Levinson (Diner, Tin men) minus the frequent one-liners.
"It’s never laugh out loud funny, but we’re invited to enjoy Kroc as a rascal, not a villain… almost til the end."
He’s cast the film with splendid actors who can handle that kind of breezy energy. It’s never laugh out loud funny, but we’re invited to enjoy Kroc as a rascal, not a villain… almost til the end. I think the idea was to put us in the same position as the McDonald’s – suck us in with charm, only to reveal a side of Kroc that seems oblivious to moral hazard. But the poignancy in the story is muted from the start: Kroc and the brothers were never pals (at least as the movie would have it).
Yet, I am uneasy about this as a story strategy. It restricts the point of view to Kroc’s arc. The McDonald’s role in this structure is to merely react. We are locked into Kroc’s struggles. This is finally reductive, narrowing the story to one of winners and losers.
Still, Dick and Mac are rendered sympathetically, which can’t be said for all the characters. Along the way Kroc dumps his first wife – Laura Dern – characterised as a glum naysayer impatient for success – for the glamorous Joan (Linda Cardellini).
It’s a low budget film, but it’s served with a high gloss. The look is crafted in McDonald’s house colours - all warm browns and yellows. The effect is blandly pretty. Like so many recent period pics, Hancock and co. have lavished detail in the props and design, but the slang and attitudes of the era are missing; there’s no soul in the pageantry.
The Founder then is a movie experience of incidental pleasures. I liked the acting and some of the lines sting: “McDonald’s can be the new American church.”
Hanging over the film is the question of what drove Kroc. What was he pursuing? It's never quite answered. But near the end, there is a hint at his unease with his own identity. There is the tantalising suggestion that his business acumen was founded not on some intellectual acumen, but a self-loathing and a desire for re-invention. Here Keaton’s characterisation shifts to hint at a kind of mad, unquenchable thirst for success that feels no consequence. It’s a great chilling scene. I just wish The Founder had more of them.
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