by Bayard Lewis
There's a previously untold story about the founding of an iconic American enterprise, McDonald’s. Ray Kroc, who we know as the founder of the restaurant chain, actually took the business away from two men who revolutionized the world of fast food. Before frozen boxes of hamburger patties and milkshakes made from a pseudo-milk substance, McDonald’s began as a hometown shop dedicated to making fresh, fast hamburgers.
Michael Keaton plays “the founder” Ray Kroc and his charisma combined with personality quirks make Kroc come alive in a likeable way. As the story begins, we are rooting for him to find success and stop pestering people with door to door sales. However, once we see that he becomes an opportunist and turns against the two brothers who originally started the legacy, he shifts into a man that can no longer be trusted to be forthright and ethical. John Carroll Lynch and Nick Offerman play the McDonald brothers and there’s a feeling of a the good cop, bad cop routine when they are dealing with Kroc. Lynch has more opportunity in his role to embody a character who is deeply distressed once Kroc starts to violate the terms of their franchise agreement.
The sets for “The Founder” were constructed to replicate a few of the oldest McDonald’s locations in Illinois where the golden arches were integral to the building’s architecture. Night scenes with glowing lights take the viewer back to a simpler time. There are feel-good montages where the assembly line of dressing a hamburger is captured in brilliant color and satisfied customers walk away with a new phenomenon, the bagged fast food meal.
Some moments in the film, like Kroc breaking the fourth wall and speaking directly to the audience feel a little contrived and probably could have been left out. Some of his monologuing, although done expertly by Keaton, hits the audience over the head with his inner world and isn't really necessary in the context of a movie. Bits of quotable dialog like ‘business is war” and “contracts are like hearts, they’re made to be broken” seem too tailored for soundbites in a movie trailer. Beyond these flaws, the writing works to keep us engaged as Kroc’s family life unravels while his enterprise blossoms.
The supporting cast members reflect the sides of Ray Kroc that the filmmakers wanted to shed light on because this is the first dramatic telling of how McDonald’s took hold in America. Laura Dern plays Ethel Kroc, Ray’s neglected wife, who is happy for her husband’s long-awaited success, but cannot endure being ignored as a spouse. Dern shows us the emotional toll that the spouses of successful business people must cope with or eventually walk away from.
Overall the story is compelling, taking the audience along for the ride on Kroc’s quest to launch his own business empire. It’s a tale of underhanded success that is undeniably relevant to modern America, sometimes filled with Machiavellian business practices.