“The Founder” might be the most enjoyable thing McDonald’s has produced since the McGriddle. A behind-the-scenes story, it tries hard to sell the drama of Ray Kroc’s business venture to launch an international hamburger franchise—all based on the work of two hardworking brothers whose only goal was to produce satisfying meals for hungry Americans. It dives into familiar territory but takes some interesting turns along the way in an attempt to humanize a complete piece of shit. “The Founder” is like “The Social Network,” but with hamburgers instead of social media.
Ray Kroc (the amazing Michael Keaton) is a middle-aged salesman hocking milkshake mixers in the mighty Midwest. He’s kind of a weasely huckster with a solid pitch, but he’s been chasing one idea after the next, waiting for the “next big thing.” When a small hamburger stand in San Bernardino, California, orders a lot of his mixers, he decides to hit the road and find out what the hubbub is about. It turns out the McDonald brothers had created America’s most revolutionary hamburger stand: a combination of dedication to food quality and passion for what they were doing. As soon as Ray sees the first McDonald’s, he realizes the potential and begins to formulate a plan. Unfortunately, his dreams of coast-to-coast golden arches are met with ambivalence by Mac McDonald (John Carroll Lynch) and his brother Dick (Nick Offerman). After nearly 30 years in the restaurant business, the McDonald brothers are hesitant to see their brand ruined by franchises that don’t adhere to their high bar of quality.
I’m going to take a moment for encore readers to ponder that McDonald’s was at one time associated with extremely high quality. Now that we’ve all had a good chuckle, allow me to continue…
Ray finally convinces the McDonald brothers to let him be their franchise agent. He chases his dream of making McDonald’s the next great American institution. Unfortunately, his business partners are so protective of their name and product quality, they prevent Ray from mercilessly whoring out the restaurants at a profitable rate. An enterprising businessman sees opportunity and pitches Ray the idea that franchising restaurants isn’t nearly as profitable as owning the land these businesses are on. Kroc—desperate to be taken seriously and become successful—starts dabbling in some very profitable but underhanded deals.
At the heart of “The Founder” is an ideological battle between the purity of perfection and the bastardization that comes from selling out. It’s unfair to say Kroc was a complete pile of human garbage. He worked hard and had high standards for those to whom he was franchising the McDonald’s name, but it could never line up with the actual McDonald brothers’ vision. At the end of the day, Kroc revealed himself to mostly be a soulless shill obsessed with success. Much of the movie feels like an attempt at an honest portrayal of a monster. In spite of his intelligence, in spite of his drive, Kroc was a man who co-opted someone else’s dream into his own multi-billion-dollar vision.
While the logistics and story are pretty standard fare, the performances really make “The Founder” worth watching. It’s so great seeing Michael Keaton in movies again after a 10-year absence. He’s the same engaging, likable everyman who elevates every role he inhabits. Nick Offerman (“Parks and Rec”) is also great as the straight-shooting Dick McDonald, who watches as the company with his name on it is eventually stripped away. The movie is a somber portrayal of real events. Kroc steals his piece of the American dream, while the McDonald brothers (though left with a decent check) watch as their vision is co-opted and name used to sell hamburgers worldwide
“The Founder” feels like an apt metaphor for the current state of the world. It’s easy to see the spirit of Ray Kroc in a world obsessed with selling out and finding success by any means necessary. The most confounding and exciting thing about “The Founder” is how viewers see Ray Kroc. I found his success stymieing and his entire life to be as empty as the calories in a McDonald’s hamburger.