History is littered with stories of ruthless businessmen. Stories abound of people who, now multi, multi-billionaires, got started by pinching an idea here or buying an idea there. Bill Gates and Microsoft is a good example, McDonald’s and Ray Kroc is another.
To say The Founder tells the story of McDonald’s is a tad misleading. What it really tells the story of is Ray Kroc, played by Michael Keaton (Birdman, Batman). Kroc, a down-at-heel milkshake machine salesman, comes across the first McDonald’s after they order eight of his machines, which was unheard of. Baffled by this need he jumps in the car and heads to see for himself what’s going on and is stunned by what he finds.
Two brothers, Richard and Maurice McDonald, played by Nick Offerman (Parks and Recreation, Fargo) and John Carroll Lynch (Shutter Island, Crazy, Stupid, Love), have setup McDonald’s restaurant and have created the ‘speedy system’. This system ensures that each burger they produce is cooked to the same length of time, each burger has the same amount of sauce and gherkins and the fries are cooked at the same temperature. They can churn out food and at an alarming rate and sell burgers for 15 cents, something that’s never been seen before in 40’s America.
Then along comes Kroc, ambitious as he his bold. I’m sure we all have that one friend who is always looking for the quick way to make money, jumping from idea-to-idea, this is Kroc. He can instantly see the potential in McDonald’s and convinces the brothers to let him lead the franchising operation. Eventually, after much arguing and disagreement amongst the three of them, Kroc buys the brothers out of their own business, even taking the name from them and is now credited as the ‘founder’ of McDonald’s.
It’s fabulous to see Keaton back on screen, he is such a good actor, full of life, he brings an energy and intensity to roles that transforms them. Here he plays Kroc in such way that, right up until he takes everything from the two brothers (admittedly paying them $1.3 million each), you still like the guy. Then he shafts them, including performing a ‘handshake’ deal on them wanting one-percent of royalties from future McDonald’s sales. The brothers were unable to prove this deal and never received anything, the deal is worth about $100 million per year now.
Offerman and Lynch are brilliant as the two, quiet brothers. Offerman is the more clinical one, he came up with the idea of making everything quicker and easier, stripping menus back to focus on what makes money. Lynch is the more emotional of the two brothers and talks enough for the two of them.
Laura Dern (Jurassic Park, Wild) plays Kroc’s wife Ethel (the film seems to skip over his second marriage to Jane Dobbins for some reason) and she doesn’t get an awful lot to do. In fact, out of the whole film, it’s this slight delve into Kroc’s personal life and the wooing of his third wife Joan, that really slows the whole movie down. It feels unnecessary and I can’t see what it adds, it’s perhaps included so you don’t think he’s a complete git but that ship sales long before.
Writer Robert Siegel (The Wrestler, Turbo) seems to have stuck, more or less, to the facts as we know them. He doesn’t particularly try to paint Kroc as anything other than what he was, a businessman, pure and simple. As the man says himself “if my rival was drowning, I’d walk over and stick a hose in his mouth”.
Directed by John Lee Hancock (Saving Mr. Banks, Snow White and the Huntsman), The Founder doesn’t provide anything new to those of us familiar with the story behind McDonald’s but, if you’re not, it’s as good a place as any to learn.