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You Deserve a Break Today

Michael Keaton
Michael Keaton
The Weinstein Company
 115 Minutes
Rated: PG-13
Directed by: John Lee Hancock
Starring: Michael Keaton, Laura Dern

“Nothing is more common than unsuccessful people with talent.” That’s a quote from Calvin Coolidge, which is appropriated and repeated twice in The Founder, the new movie about the origins of McDonald’s. The first time we hear the quote is when it is recited by an unknown speaker on a motivational record that a struggling milk-shake-machine salesman named Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton) listens to religiously in his motel room in lieu of bedtime music. The second time, an older Kroc takes credit for the line as he addresses a crowd of McDonald franchisees, just as he took credit for founding the company itself.


The talented people in The Founder, as in real life, were brothers Mac (John Carroll Lynch) and Dick (Nick Offerman), owners of a highly successful fast food restaurant in San Bernardino, CA. The McDonalds figured out how to adapt assembly line techniques to the restaurant business, combining a food preparation process they actually patented with a limited menu, well-trained and disciplined employees (that didn’t include individual wait staff), and the use of paper wrappers and cups for the food and drink, all of which allowed them to serve customers within 30 seconds. Although their restaurant attracted huge crowds in San Bernardino, their one earlier attempt at franchising was a failure, although it did produce one franchise location with Dick McDonald’s signature visual enhancement, the golden arches.


Enter Kroc, who decides to check out the restaurant when the brothers place an extremely large order for his mixers. He recognizes what they’ve done and offers to help them franchise the operation. Reluctant at first, the brothers eventually sign a franchising agreement with Kroc under which they retain control of all restaurant-related decisions.


At first, Kroc runs into the same problems the McDonalds did at his franchised locations. Selling primarily to rich friends of his wife, he finds these franchisees unwilling to adopt the McDonalds methodology, instead allowing managers to run things any way they wanted. An enraged Kroc redirects his sales efforts towards younger entrepreneurial couples with their own sweat equity in the franchise.


As McDonalds succeeds, however, Kroc finds himself held back more and more by the McDonalds who are reluctant to approve changes that allow for more streamlining of operations (and, thus, more profit), such as using powdered milk for the milk shake machines. He also becomes more and more distant from his first wife Ethel (Laura Dern), who supports him but doesn’t share his overriding ambition. Eventually, Kroc becomes far more ruthless, at first figuring a way to buy the land he would then lease to the franchisees and then, eventually, seizing control of the business entirely from the McDonalds, putting it under the ownership of his own real estate company, which he renames the McDonalds Corporation. He also becomes more ruthless in dealing with Ethel, divorcing her in favor of Joan Smith (Linda Cardellini), the wife of a company franchisee he meets while on the road (Kroc’s real life second wife is never mentioned).


Movies like The Founder are often difficult for critics to discuss without essentially taking sides in the film’s underlying conflict. The story of McDonalds is actually the story of two talented restauranteurs with limited vision and ambition beyond the four walls of their own establishment joining up with a man possessed of enormous drive, considerable sales and marketing skill, and an ability to see the bigger picture that the McDonalds lack. Without the McDonald brothers, Kroc would probably have peddled mixers with limited success the rest of his life (he was 52 when he joined up with them). But without Kroc, the McDonalds would have had little other than one drive-in restaurant.


The Founder never fully explains Kroc’s descent to the dark side. At first, he seems a bit naïve, spouting out his sales pitch unsuccessfully to dozens of restaurant owners. But, as played brilliantly by Michael Keaton, he projects confidence and complete faith in what he’s selling, and when he finally has the chance to sell the right product, McDonalds (as in the clip showed below), he hits it big. We also recognize his desire with recognition, which borders on obsession. In an early scene at a country club dinner, wealthy friends ridicule him for his past business failures, and he practically has to grovel to get a loan to start his first midwestern McDonalds. So, when franchisees in various cities hail him as a business genius or Joan looks at him with the right seductive glance, he eats it up.


The Founder was directed by John Lee Hancock from a script by Robert Siegel, who also wrote The Wrestler. The movie takes some liberties with the truth in painting a darker picture of Kroc than the actual man, who was considerably more complex. The McDonalds were content to let Kroc do the work and take the lion’s share of the franchising profits, and, even though he later screwed them on a handshake deal to give them a share of the profits when he bought them out (an incredibly boneheaded decision on their part), they also engaged in some sharp tactics of their own, such as not telling him he would have to buy back an already sold franchise in Des Plaines, IL.


The truly remarkable thing about The Founder is the fact that, no matter how many repellant and petty things Ray Kroc does, it’s hard to truly dislike him because of Keaton’s infections performance. This is the Michael Keaton on display in those goofy 1980’s comedies, who largely disappeared around the time he started playing Batman. That Keaton got by in film after film on charm (not unlike Tom Hanks), and the charm is on full display here.


Technically, The Founder does a great job of recalling the look, feel, and ambience of the 1950’s fast food experience, from the diners plagued by annoying teenagers to the sleek, clean look and feel of McDonalds. Hancock blends archival footage with staged shots from the movie to create entertaining montages depicting the training McDonalds employees underwent, and his frequent cuts from one Kroc speech to another emphasize the man’s drive and discipline. If the secret to food is in the presentation, a good bit of the secret to The Founder is in Hancock’s style.


The Founder is a how movie rather than a why movie. It teases us with glimpses of the real Ray Kroc but, despite Keaton’s best efforts, the audience never feels it has a handle on the man. But they will get a better understanding of the McDonald’s phenomenon—how one restaurant emerged from the chaos of the landscape of 1950’s Americana to become an international phenomenon. And it’s clear that the success of McDonalds wasn’t due solely to Ray Kroc (as he claimed for years) or to the McDonald brothers (as some critics of this film and of Kroc have claimed) but to all three. McDonalds isn’t the ideal American success story, but it is a warts-and-all portrayal of the realities of business, and you’ll seldom see a better portrayal than in this film. Moviegoers deserve a break today, and they’ll get it by seeing The Founder. 

In this scene, Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton) pitches McDonalds to prospective franchisees.

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The Founder (2016) on IMDb