A film review by Craig J. Koban January 30, 2017

THE FOUNDER jjj
 

2016, PG-13, 115 mins.

 

Michael Keaton as Ray Kroc  /  Nick Offerman as Dick McDonald  /  John Carroll Lynch as Mac McDonald  /  Laura Dern as Ethel Kroc  /  Linda Cardellini as Joan Smith  /  B. J. Novak as Harry Sonneborn  /  Wilbur Fitzgerald as Jerry Cullen  /  Patrick Wilson as Rollie Smith

Directed by John Lee Hancock  /  Written by Robert D. Siegel

I want you to close your eyes and try to remember a time without fast food in the world. 

It's next to impossible, isn't it?

There's a remarkable scene early on it THE FOUNDER that has struggling milkshake maker salesman Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton) journeying through California in the early 1950's.  He's continuously discouraged at the egregiously slow service and poor food quality that he's been experiencing on the road at many a drive-in dinner.  He makes a special pilgrimage to San Bernardino to check out a local restaurant called...McDonald's, mostly because their owners Richard and Maurice McDonald purchased an unusual number of milkshakes from him recently, which has obviously peaked his interest in checking out their operation. 

It would be a visit that would change the very fabric of food and consumer culture forever. 

When he arrives he notices several highly unusual things, like, for instance, that he has to get out of his car and walk up to a window to place his order.  Most astonishing to him is that his hamburger, fries, and drink order is giving to him in paper wrappings and in a paper bag less than a minute after ordering it.  Kroc is left speechless, seeing as he can't believe the unimaginable speed by which he received his lunch.  He then asks his order taker where he's supposed to eat it, to which the confused lad informs him "anywhere."  Kroc sits down on a nearby bench, munches on his burger (which he greatly enjoys) and finally makes one very important observation: there are countless families all lined up to get their hands on what McDonald's is serving.  

These brothers, in his mind, were on to something revolutionary. 

 

 

THE FOUNDER is, of course, the fact based story of the origins of McDonald's from a very humble single establishment over 60 years ago and into one the most omnipresent and recognizable corporations in the world.  It's actually more about Kroc himself, who went on a seemingly rags-to-riches journey from being a downtrodden and destitute traveling salesman to one of the richest and most influential businessmen in the history of America.  Without Kroc and his acknowledgement of the limitless potential of the McDonald brothers' restaurant to fundamentally change the way America (and later the planet) eats as a vast franchised empire...our world would indeed be a vastly different place.  Granted, some would argue for the worse considering the rampant obesity that plagues North America that can easily be attributed to diets of unhealthy binge eating at fast food restaurants, but that's a debate for another day. 

John Lee Hillcoat's (THE BLIND SIDE, SAVING MR. BANKS) chronicle of the unlikely rise to fame and fortune of Kroc has the unenviable task, as previously alluded to earlier, of making viewers remember a time in America's past without fast food restaurants of any kind dominated city streets.  One of the central ironies in this tale and sprinkled throughout Robert Siegel's (THE WRESTLER) endlessly fascinating script is that McDonald's originally was a place that served well made product whose owners deeply resisted the idea of crass commercializing and expanding beyond their own San Bernardino operation.  The McDonald brothers feared a devolving of their high quality control standards that they created and held up at their restaurant.  They never wanted to be multi-millionaires via the exploitation of their then unheard of food serving model...they just wanted to serve well made burgers to hungry families.  Kroc, by direct contrast, wanted McDonald's to be as recognizable on a street as a cross above a church.  He was thinking of the big financial picture first and food quality a very distant second, and the manner with which he ultimately achieved his end game was a combination of raw and undying determination and some highly unethical business choices. 

The early sections of THE FOUNDER are arguably its most compelling, showcasing Kroc desperately pleading with the McDonald brothers (played respectively by the pitch perfectly cast Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch) to see his vision of a McDonald's...everywhere.  He not only appeals to their patriotism ("Do it for America," he pitifully pleads at one point), but also tries to impart on them the infinite possibilities of their 30-seconds/not-30-minutes serving standards and what that could mean to altering the landscape of American food culture.  The brothers were highly reticent, and more than a bit doubtful of this milkshake salesman could make due on his promises, but they nevertheless acquiesced to his ideas.  By 1961 - after a series of successful franchise launches and an increasingly tenuous business relationship between Kroc and the brothers - Kroc bought out the brothers for the rights to McDonald's for $2.7 million dollars with a handshake promise of future royalties.  Tragically, the siblings never saw one more dime of money after Kroc's purchase, and the rest, as they say, is history. 

THE FOUNDER is almost more of a solemn cautionary tale than an obligatory biopic.  It's also far less sanitized about Kroc himself than I was frankly expecting.  If anything, the McDonald brothers were simple, modest, and innocent men that gave into the Svengali-like charisma and charm of Kroc and, in the unfortunate process, eventually saw a complete perversion of their wholesome homebrewed brand.  Their story reiterates how insatiable commercial interests can oftentimes battle with the idealism of creators and innovators that don't want to sell out.  The McDonald brothers never wanted their restaurant to become - in Kroc's own words - the new American church.  They always seemed on the defensive with Kroc, who continually became frustrated and angered with their unwillingness to try cost cutting measures to improve productivity.   

This is what makes THE FOUNDER more of a profoundly melancholic film to sit through and not an uplifting tale of a business underdog achieving final victory in life.  Kroc himself makes for a thoroughly intriguing case study here: he's not a downright evil and unscrupulous man, nor is he an individual of honest principle.  His ambition to do something with McDonald's is commendable, especially seeing that no other past model of success helped drive his ambition.  In some respects, Kroc is shown here as an audacious workaholic that legitimately wanted to empower himself and had the vision to see McDonald's though to unfathomable success; he's the poster child for self-made men.  Yet, on the flip side, Kroc is also shown as a self-serving opportunist that would end up betraying his very business partners in multiple unsavory ways.  The fact that THE FOUNDER makes Kroc both a pioneering business figure worthy of respect that's also easily and rightfully detestable is the film's coup de grace.   

All of this is driven home with Keaton's understated, but nevertheless intoxicating turn as Kroc, who plays the man with an untapped reservoir of soft spoken sincerity and plain-spoken conviction that it's easily credible to see why anyone would buy into his vision of a global McDonald's franchise.  Keaton brings a precise level of unpredictable edge to the film that helps to underscore Kroc as a man of highly duplicitous motives and actions.  I only wished that some of the other characters that populated THE FOUNDER were as well rounded, especially the female roles, which are frequently marginalized and woefully underwritten (as is the case with Kroc's wife, played by Laura Dern, that wallows in grieving-wife-on-the-sidelines troupes).  Yet, THE FOUNDER profoundly captivated me in unexpected ways, especially in how it examined how the golden arches adorned restaurant visited by billions of people today began so discreetly.  The film also wisely educates us that, not so long ago, McDonald's wasn't considered a soulless corporation that churned out unhealthy food to the hungry masses on tight budgets and with limited patience.  It was really a quality restaurant to get well made burgers served in an expeditious manner.  

Just think of what might of happened if Kroc never sold those six milkshake machines to those brothers back in day.  Maybe we'd all be a bit skinnier and healthier now.       

 

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