The true story of a 53 year-old milkshake machine salesman who builds a fast food franchise may not come across as compelling cinema. But when that franchise is none other than McDonald’s and the salesman is as fascinating as Ray Kroc, let’s just say there is plenty there to anchor your interest.
McDonald’s has come a long way since its humble beginning in 1940. What started as a barbecue restaurant in San Bernardino, California has become a global phenomenon. Currently McDonald’s employs nearly 450,000 people and sports over 36,500 locations worldwide. They are everywhere. My wife and I even came across one while strolling down Paris’ famous Champs-Elysees? Ray Kroc’s shrewd and ambitious vision turned McDonald’s into a multi-billion dollar franchise and he barreled over anyone who got in his way.
Ray is played by Michael Keaton, a crafty actor with plenty of variation to bring out his character’s many layers. When we first see Ray it’s 1954 and he’s peddling milkshake machines to drive-in restaurants across the midwest. Despite numerous failing business ventures he still manages a modest comfortable living with his supportive but neglected wife Ethel (Laura Dern). But contentment isn’t in Ray’s vocabulary. He firmly believes he’s one deal away from his ship coming in.
After a small California diner named McDonald’s orders six of his five-spindle multimixers a surprised Ray heads out to San Bernardino to check out their restaurant. There he meets the owners, the sociable Mac (John Carroll Lynch) and his intuitive brother Dick (Nick Offerman). Their family-ran diner is built on the idea of good food and fast service (Dick defines it as a “symphony of efficiency”). Ray immediately sees the franchise potential and persuades the reluctant brothers to let him in as their partner.
The screenplay from Robert D. Siegel (who also wrote 2008’s “The Wrestler”) was inspired by Ray Kroc’s 1977 autobiography but also an unauthorized biography. This enabled Siegel to learn the good and bad sides of this complex man. He and director John Lee Hancock move through Kroc’s story with a clear-eyed rhythm, hitting most of the high points and avoiding any lulls. They portray the businessman as both sympathetic and repulsive. Siegel himself said that after seven viewings he still didn’t know whether he liked Ray Kroc or not.
Underneath its biopic epidermis is a surprisingly rich character study that can be as shrewd as Kroc himself and that doesn’t shy away from looking at him with a skeptical eye. It also gives Michael Keaton good material to work with. He is magnetic and endlessly charismatic, so much so that we remain glued to him even as our impression of his character sours. Offerman is also very good as is Dern. Unfortunately she gets left behind (as does a lot of the of Kroc’s personal details) in favor of the business end of the story. But you could say that’s an authentic portrayal – business before everything else.
Over the years McDonald’s has certainly changed. The food you now get is a far cry from the delicious all-beef patties we see on the McDonald brothers’ grill. And it’s funny, the same can be said for the Ray Kroc character. He’s a much different person by the end of the movie. That’s what makes “The Founder” such a fascinating watch. Sadly it hasn’t gotten much traction in theaters, but hopefully people will give it a look. It’s a great way to start the 2017 movie year.
VERDICT – 4.5 STARS