Film Review: The Founder

Based on the life of Ray Kroc, who rose from traveling salesman to build and rule the global McDonald’s empire, this only-in-America tale is a cinematic Big Mac of classy, easily digestible entertainment, topped by Michael Keaton’s thrilling performance.
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Were not John Lee Hancock’s (Saving Mr. Banks) The Founder so conventionally superb rather than more artistically adventurous (e.g., La La Land or Moonlight) or dramatically searing (e.g., Manchester by the Sea), Oscar attention would be sizzling on its front burner like all the tempting hamburgers on view. But awards attention is not off this menu, especially with Michael Keaton as McDonald’s pioneer Ray Kroc, Robert D. Siegel’s wonderful script, and Michael Corenblith’s production design evoking the 1950s and beyond. Dare we say that the film also functions as escapism to a less complicated America?

The story begins in 1954, with the determined, hard-working Kroc (Keaton) kicking and sweating around the Midwest peddling multiple-spindle milk-shake mixers to food outlets. Back home in small-town Illinois, wife Ethel (Laura Dern), who supports her husband on this and previous unproductive schemes, exercises waning patience as she eyes upper rungs of the social ladder and more country club dinners.

Kroc persists, following the advice of his self-help tapes. When an unusually big order for eight shake machines catches his attention, he makes the long trip west along the iconic Route 66 to meet those who placed it. There at the first McDonald’s in San Bernadino, California, Kroc encounters a modest hamburger joint doing land-office business. He meets and connects with brother owners Dick McDonald (Nick Offerman), the nerdy, controlling perfectionist, and the warmer Mac (John Carroll Lynch), a jolly sort who is “front of the house”-friendly.

Impressed with the quality, speed and efficiency of the operation and the crowds drawn to the yummy burgers and fries, Kroc engages a fully willing Mac to show off the business and provide some history. Inspired by the dazzle of the movie business, the brothers left New Hampshire to make a career in Hollywood. They learned early harsh lessons from running a movie theatre and landed in foodservice and the shortcomings of drive-ins and inefficient kitchens. Thus, their McDonald’s now runs assembly-line style in a carefully planned kitchen serving only hamburgers, fries and drinks to customers who quickly pick up their own orders in disposable containers at counters. It’s as smooth as the shakes.

Kroc, returning to Illinois determined to get a piece of this action, is soon onboard in a small capacity after suggesting that the brothers franchise. (The business is “too good for one location,” he tells them.) Also smitten by the siblings’ single golden arch at an outlet and their all-American name, Kroc experiences a near-epiphany of McDonald’s as the new American Church after taking note of the Midwest’s many flags and steeples.

Fired up (like those, well you know…), Kroc sets forth with a bigger, broader concept for McDonald’s that leads to the inevitable complications. As the franchises mushroom, so do Kroc’s ideas for improvement and control freak Dick McDonald’s resistance to change. Phone calls between the parties often end with hangups, and Kroc’s strict contract with them keeps him behind in mortgage payments.

These desperate straits send him to his bank, where lawyer Harry Sonneborn (B.J. Novak), conferring in an adjacent cubicle, overhears Kroc’s dilemma and collars him outside. After offering Kroc free lawyerly advice that Kroc is really in the real estate, not the hamburger business and should be buying the land underlying the outlets and leasing the space, Kroc hears the big boing. Sonneborn becomes his attorney and Kroc starts scooping up property and building the billion-dollar business McDonald’s will become.

Along the way, there’s plenty of haggling with the brothers. And a chance meeting with wealthy Midwest restaurateur and investor Rollie Smith (Patrick Wilson) brings his wife Joan (Linda Cardellini) into Kroc’s business and life.

In spite of the film’s title and what he later proclaimed and was embossed on his business cards, Kroc, really a visionary and enabler, was no “founder” of McDonald’s. (Hey, what’s a little lying when you get down to business?) But the film itself is inspirational and, with its many business insights (focus on quality, value, control, customer needs, effective staff, efficiency and, yes, persistence), it also serves as a start-up primer that might have been called How to Succeed in Business by Really Trying.

The Founder has plenty of sizzle, but there’s the steak (actually burgers) to go along with it. So much hamburger action also cries out for a return of Smell-o-vision or motion/sensory seating to enhance the visuals. And how appropriate to see at film’s end an actual later-life Kroc family still featuring Ray and wife seated in their elegant living room with their Boston Terrier, the iconic “Made in America” breed.