While there have been a few films about the dangers of burger chain restaurants such as Morgan Spurlock’s “Supersize Me” and Richard Linklater’s “Fast Food Nation,” which was based on the book by Eric Schlosser, surprisingly a movie had not been made about how McDonald’s became an iconic part of American culture. That oversight has been corrected with “The Founder.”
The title is deliberately a bit of a misnomer as the film concentrates on the life of the man most closely associated with McDonald’s, Ray Kroc. The reality however is that Kroc (played brilliantly here by Michael Keaton), popularized Mickey D’s by franchising it but the folks who came up with the fast food concept and the golden arches were the less heralded McDonald brothers of San Bernardino.
The film opens with Kroc, then a Chicago milk shake spindle salesman who enjoys listening to self-help motivational recordings, making cold calls at Midwest car-hops. He has little luck selling his company’s product and adding to his frustration is that he has to wait for a long time for his food order at the car hops that services. When it does arrive, it’s generally not what he requested. Calling into the home office he is told of a restaurant just outside of Los Angeles that put in an order for six of his milk shake makers. Just to verify things, Kroc calls this Southern California restaurant. Dick McDonald picks up the phones and tells Kroc to up the order to eight machines.
Intrigued, Kroc decides to take a 2,000 mile ride along Route 66 to San Bernardino to check out this McDonald’s. He is amazed to find that he can get a great hamburger less than 30 seconds after ordering it from the window.
Sensing that this is a revolutionary food service trend Kroc invites the McDonald brothers, Dick (Nick Offerman) and Mac (John Carroll Lynch) to dinner. The brothers give him a private tour of their facility and Dick details the labor intensive assembly line approach that is necessary to make the fast food concept work.
The next morning Ray returns to the restaurant and pitches the idea of franchising McDonald’s nationally with the brothers receiving a franchise fee royalty. Dick is concerned about quality standards being maintained and points to a disastrous experience in Phoenix when they tried to establish a restaurant there. Ray assures them that he is as concerned about quality as they are, and the more outgoing sibling, Mac, is able to nudge Dick into giving Ray a shot at franchising in the Rust Belt.
As is generally the case with these deals, trouble soon ensues. Ray finds that the expenses he has to incur don’t cover the commission percentage that he agreed upon and demands a higher amount. Dick refuses to renegotiate. When some of the franchisees complain about the high electrical costs of storing ice cream, Ray proposes that McDonald’s use a milk shake instant powder mix. The McDonald brothers turn that idea down cold. “A milk shake has to have milk in it!” Dick calmly explains to Ray.
An Illinois banker, Henry Sonneborn (BJ Novak) advises Kroc to get out of the franchising business and get into real estate business instead. The big money it turns out is in buying real estate and then leasing it back to McDonald’s operators. The best part for Ray is that he doesn’t have to share his profits with the McDonald brothers.
“The Founder” succeeds because of the superb work of its lead actor. Michael Keaton handles the difficult Ray Kroc role with aplomb. What makes it a tough part to play is that one minute the audience is cheering for him when he tries to escape his Willy Loman existence but the next minute Kroc becomes a heel when he either tries to take advantage of the not-so-savvy McDonald brothers or flirts with the beautiful wife of a Minneapolis franchise operator which leads him to divorce his loyal wife of 39 years, Edith.
Longtime Keaton fans will be reminded in the early scenes of this film of his manic Billy Blazejowski character from the underrated 1982 comedy, “Night Shift,” where he uses his job at a city morgue to turn it into a house of ill repute in order to get rich quickly.
“The Founder” is a cautionary tale about getting everything in writing and making sure that you have the legal resources to contest any breaches. In my opinion, this is the best film about business since “Wall Street” nearly 30 years ago.