The Founder Half Good and Half Advertsing

Directed by John Lee Hancock
The Weinstein Company, 115 minutes, PG-13 (language)

The Founder is another example of the challenges of bio-pics. They are always  metaphorical tightrope walks. On one hand you want your central character to be sympathetic enough to keep the viewer's attention but on the other, a lot of intriguing people have more imperfections than a shattered milk bottle diamond. The Founder is similarly flawed. It takes a peek at a very imperfect individual: Ray Kroc (1902-1984), the mastermind who franchised MacDonald's.  

The title is ironic; although he later asserted that a store he started in Des Plaines, Illinois was the first MacDonald's, it was not Kroc's idea. The original MacDonald's was a hamburger joint in San Bernardino, California named for two brothers: Dick and Maurice MacDonald. Our action begins in 1954, when Kroc is a Willy Loman-like salesman for a milkshake maker almost no one wants. When Ray (Michael Keaton) gets an order for an army of them, he's so curious that he drives from Illinois to California to investigate. He is astounded to witness the booming little joint that Dick (Nick Offerman) and "Mac" (John Carroll Lynch) MacDonald are operating and it's the first time he's ever experienced a fast food take-out establishment. As he sits down on a bench, bites into his burger, and declares it the "best hamburger I've ever had," Ray begins to think big.

Here is the first (of many) times in which myth and reality clash. The MacDonalds were cranking out short order burgers, not filet mignon in a bun, so I doubt Kroc experienced an epicurean wet dream from that greasy patty. Also, for the record, White Castle had been around since 1921, and was well known in Illinois, where Kroc was born, raised, and based. The above scene also points the way for another of the film's flaws—John Lee Hancock can't decide if he wants to direct a character study or an extended MacDonald's ad. He opts for both, which is seldom the right way to go. I found the second route to be, if you will, unpalatable. Oddly, though, the film skips the decision to adopt a clown* as MacDonald's icon—perhaps because it has become controversial and is now used by activists a symbol of corporatism run amok.

The film is strongest when Hancock shows Kroc for what he was—an ambitious hustler, glad hander, and schemer. His 'genius' was to foresee the possibilities involved in fast food franchising during the post-World War II economic and baby booms. We also see his egoism, shown poignantly in his curt and heartless request for a divorce from his wife Ethel (Laura Dern) so that he could pursue another man's wife, Joan Smith (Linda Cardellini), who would eventually become his second wife and widow. That romance, however, is also slathered in Hollywood myths, including a wooing scene played out at MacDonald's window after hours that you'd find silly in a film about teenagers. Joan is also the center of another advertising moment. She gets credit for an instant milkshake powder that is tested in a posh Chicago restaurant and pronounced, "the best damn milkshake you've ever had." Ummm… no! That's why Mickey D's eventually went back to actual ice cream. And Joan was no angel, despite her later philanthropy. Ask anyone associated with the San Diego Padres when she owned the team.

Take away the embarrassing moments, and The Founder is actually a decent film. Keaton is a good enough actor to play both charming and oily convincingly. We witness Kroc's ruthlessness in driving out the MacDonald brothers for a cheap buyout, in reneging on verbal agreement to pay the brothers royalties, and in working with industrial lawyer Harry Sonneborn (B. J. Novak) to figure out that the key to fortune lay in control of real estate, not in salted fries, shakes, and assembly line burgers. The film takes us to 1980, when Kroc and Joan—whom he married in 1969—live amidst southern California gilded luxury and Ray preens before a mirror while rehearsing a speech for a different Ronald: presidential candidate Ronald Reagan.

As a film, The Founder is a bit like a MacDonald's meal: fast, filling, and loaded with lots of crap you don't need. But, when you don't have time to cook literally or intellectually, those salted fries fit the bill.  

Rob Weir

* For the record, Ronald MacDonald was patterned after future weatherman Willard Scott's portrayal of Bozo the Clown, a character developed in the 1940s. In 1963, Scott played Ronald "the hamburger crazy" clown in three MacDonald's TV ads. However, Ronald didn't become the corporate symbol until 1974.

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