It’s all about persistence.
That’s the central theme of THE FOUNDER (2017), the new bio pic starring Michael Keaton as McDonald’s “founder” Ray Kroc.
It’s 1954, and Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton) is a struggling salesman in Chicago who is shocked when a restaurant in San Bernardino, California orders eight of his milkshake machines. Nobody ever orders that many machines, and so, curious and perhaps a bit inspired, Kroc drives across the country to California to see the restaurant for himself.
What he finds is McDonalds, an eatery that he at first mistakes for the typical drive-in restaurant of its day. However, he observes that rather than wait in his car for his order to be taken, he has to walk up to a window in the front of the restaurant. He is then amazed to have his food given to him before he even leaves the order window.
Kroc introduces himself to the two brothers who run McDonalds, Dick McDonald (Nick Offerman) and Mac McDonald (John Carroll Lynch). The brothers give him a tour of the restaurant, including their custom-made kitchen which enables them to cook their burgers uniformly and quickly.
Impressed by the concept, Kroc approaches the brothers with a proposition: he wants to franchise the restaurant across the nation. He thinks their model is so superior to what everyone else is doing, it’s bound to be a success. The brothers hesitate to agree at first, explaining that they already tried to expand but failed, as they couldn’t keep the quality of the other restaurants up to the level of their original eatery.
Bur Kroc persists, explaining that the brothers should leave everything to him, that he will be in charge of the expansion and he will be successful. Eventually, the brothers agree. What follows is the story of how Kroc relentlessly worked to build a McDonalds empire, which eventually put him at odds with the McDonalds brothers who were never as interested as he was in going national, and of course, eventually global.
THE FOUNDER is a fascinating story, a movie that is as entertaining as it is informative. With Michael Keaton playing Ray Kroc, the slant in this movie is that Kroc worked so hard that he eventually claimed the title of “McDonalds Founder” even though he didn’t originate the model, because he worked for it and the McDonald brothers did not. It’s certainly a take which is more sympathetic towards Kroc than the McDonald brothers. I’d wager to guess that in real life Kroc was a bit nastier than he was portrayed in this movie, and the McDonald brothers a bit more victimized.
I’ve always been a Michael Keaton fan, and it’s been great seeing him back in major movie roles once again. I loved him in BIRDMAN (2014) and in SPOTLIGHT (2015). He’s equally as good here as Ray Kroc. He makes Kroc a frenetic salesman who after one rough time after another, sees McDonalds as his opportunity to finally make it big after years of failure. And that’s why he works so hard. That’s why he puts everything into the franchise, because he knows this is his one big shot. He has to take it.
The film’s theme of persistence is a good one. Regardless of what the real life Ray Kroc may have been like, in this movie, he’s portrayed as a man who is so focused on his goal, it’s difficult not to like him, even when later he does take a darker turn. When he realizes that his success has suddenly given more power than he ever thought he would have, he decides to use that power to go after everything he wants because he knows he can get it.
In a lesser actor’s hands, Kroc may have lost all sympathy at this point, but as played by Michael Keaton, the role becomes a natural extension of Kroc’s personality and the circumstances he finds himself in. In other words, it doesn’t come off as if he was a weasel in the making, just waiting for his chance to make it big, but rather, as a man who worked hard to be a success and then suddenly realized he had the clout and influence to get whatever he wanted.
Nearly as good as Keaton are Nick Offerman as Dick McDonald and John Carroll Lynch as his brother Mac McDonald. Offerman and Carroll Lynch portray the quirky brothers as two rather innocent men who were more than happy just to have their one restaurant. When Kroc begins to take over, they are slow to react, and eventually they lose nearly everything because they were not prepared to stand their ground against Kroc’s ambition.
Nick Offerman recently starred in the TV series FARGO (2015), while John Carroll Lynch seems to show up everywhere these days. He just played Lyndon Johnson in JACKIE (2016). Among other things, he’s been in AMERICAN HORROR STORY and THE WALKING DEAD, and he was memorable in the small release horror movie THE INVITATION (2015).
Laura Dern looks worn and weathered as Kroc’s longtime suffering wife, alone most of her life as he is off building a fast food empire. Even when she attempts to lend a helping hand and offer her support, it does her little good, as eventually Kroc leaves her for another woman. The other woman is Joan Smith, the wife of one of his McDonalds managers, played effectively by Linda Cardellini.
Smith’s husband, Rollie Smith, is played by Patrick Wilson from THE CONJURING and INSIDIOUS movies. B.J. Novak is memorable in a small role as Kroc’s business partner Harry J. Sonneborn, the man who advised Kroc to buy the land on which the McDonalds restaurants would be built, as a way to break free of the control of the McDonald brothers.
Even though its subject, Ray Kroc, is a controversial figure, THE FOUNDER is not THE WOLF OF WALL STREET (2013). It’s just not that dark a movie. Director John Lee Hancock films this one with bright tones which capture both the 1950s and McDonalds restaurants.
The screenplay by Robert D. Siegel also keeps things light. The movie plays like an offbeat quirky drama as opposed to an ominous piece on the ruthlessness of cutthroat business tactics.
Ray Kroc is portrayed in a positive light, and the message of success from persistence resonates because it is true. Most people succeed because they do not give up. The Ray Kroc in this movie is an admirable character, while the McDonald brothers, while certainly portrayed as two decent gentlemen, are shown to be passive and unimaginative when it comes to seeing how far their business could go. Kroc doesn’t so much as steal their business as he grows their business, and in this movie, they aren’t interested in going along for the ride, and so he takes the journey without them.
I really enjoyed THE FOUNDER. Michael Keaton is excellent, and both the script by Robert D. Siegel and direction by John Lee Hancock are equally as good.
The end result is an entertaining bio pic that tells a rather fascinating story behind the origins of the McDonalds empire.
I’ll have a cheeseburger and medium fries, please.
Books by Michael Arruda:
TIME FRAME, science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.
IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.
FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, short story collection by Michael Arruda.