Ketchup, mustard, two pickles. In John Lee Hancock's "The Founder," about Ray Kroc and the making of McDonald's, the ingredients for success are ruthlessly simple.
When Kroc (Michael Keaton), a struggling traveling salesmen selling milkshake mixers, first beelines to San Bernardino, California, in 1954 to get a look at Dick (Nick Offerman) and Mac (John Carroll Lynch) McDonald's burger joint, he stands agog at the counter. Moments after he orders, Kroc is handed his burger and fries in a bag, but he might as well have been flame-grilled by lightning. “But I just ordered,” he stutters.
Kroc quickly recognizes the revolutionary power of the McDonalds' restaurant and becomes its franchise-driver and the pre-eminent proselytizer of an empire built on burgers. The arches, an invention of Dick's just like its other innovations, will spread “from sea to shining sea,” Kroc vows. As a gathering place for families, it will be “the new American church, open seven days a week,” he says.
“It requires a certain kind of mind to see the beauty in a hamburger bun,” wrote David Halberstam of the minds behind McDonalds in “The Fifties.” Of course, the genius behind McDonald's lied largely with Dick McDonald, who engineered the “speedee service system” of its assembly line-like kitchen, designed its layout and focused its tiny menu.
But the ironically titled “The Founder” is not about him. It's about Kroc, a hard-drinking, slightly shifty Illinois salesman who took the idea of the McDonalds and spread it around the world through sheer (and sometimes unscrupulous) force of will and savvy standardization. In the opening scenes, Kroc, struggling to eke out a living on the road, faithfully listens to Norman Vincent Pearle's “The Power of Positive Thinking.” “Persistence, determination alone are all powerful,” Kroc absorbs.
“The Founder” is a quintessentially post-war American story about a self-made man largely made by others. Kroc, who died in 1984, fashioned himself as the “big picture” visionary to the McDonald brothers' enterprise. Though McDonald's had by 1954 already sold 21 franchises, Kroc's zeal for expansion was compulsive and it turned him into a billionaire.
The McDonald brothers quickly realize, as Dick says, that they've let a wolf in the hen house. They begin fighting over issues that in their world are of massive importance, like milkshakes. Defending his high standards, Dick warns of “crass commercialism” infecting the franchise, and somewhere, Ronald McDonald chokes on a Big Mac.
But Kroc outmaneuvers them and eventually takes control of the company, leaving the run-over McDonalds to stare blankly at the yellow-and-red Frankenstein they've created. “I'm national,” a swelling Kroc declares. “You're local.”
Yet if there's any tragedy in “The Founder,” it's not in the fate of the McDonald brothers but in Kroc's success. The film is penned by Robert D. Siegel, whose “The Wrestler” and “Big Fan” also reflected the dark underbellies of American dreams. But “The Founder,” like its subject, is a little mechanical and a little too timid to really take a bite out of McDonald's. It's less a full meal than a drive-thru order.
Hancock's film stays laser-focused on Kroc, and with the naturally appealing Keaton playing him, our sympathies initially slide toward him. But unease steadily creeps in, especially as Kroc, while espousing the virtues of family, callously jettisons his quietly steadfast wife (Laura Dern) for another man's (Linda Cardellini). The bad taste of day-old McNuggets begins to form in our mouths as our hero turns villain, and a successful one at that.
Keaton chomps on the role, a Willy Loman who strikes it rich. Like Bryan Cranston on “Breaking Bad,” we can see the wheels turning behind his eyes in his step-by-step drive for power, albeit selling a slightly healthier product than Walter White peddled.
The frightful thing about “The Founder,” though, is that for all Kroc's back-stabbing and double-crossing, he's right. Remorseless brutality, just like fresh buns, turns out to be a necessary ingredient in business. Would you like fries with that?