What Next, Frozen French Fries? 'The Founder' and McDonald's Origin Story

Michael Keaton in The Founder (2016)

For this surprisingly hard-edged biopic on the businessman behind McDonald's, Michael Keaton unfurls the black flag of unrepentant capitalism.

The Founder

Director: John Lee Hancock
Cast: Michael Keaton, Nick Offerman, John Carroll Lynch, Linda Cardellini, B.J. Novak, Laura Dern, Justin Randell Brooke, Kate Kneeland, Patrick Wilson
Rated: PG-13
Studio: Weinstein Company
Year: 2016
US date: 2017-02-17 (General release)

Sometimes a hamburger isn’t just a hamburger. Consider how many Americans still hold primal memories of wolfing down a Big Mac with fries as a child, or the fact that the Soviet Union only seemed truly dead and gone after a McDonald’s opened in Moscow in 1990. A phenomenon in many ways, McDonald's has inspired backlashes against its cookie-cutter business model, which churned out super-sized, saturated-fat obesity time bombs in the wake of exposés like Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation. It has also served "billions". As the visionary Ray Kroc puts it in The Founder, "McDonald’s can be the new American church.”

John Lee Hancock’s biopic introduces Kroc (Michael Keaton) in 1954 as a 52-year-old salesman tiredly hustling milkshake mixing machines to drive-up burger stands around the Midwest. He has a wife, Ethel (Laura Dern), back in a Chicago suburb whom he never sees. He also has a deep hunger to succeed. At what, he doesn’t know. Listening to inspirational records in motel rooms at night -- those Dale Carnegie-type messages with their chin-up Calvinist rigor that were so popular in go-go postwar America -- he feels assured that with "perseverance" anybody can do anything.

When Kroc hears that a burger joint out in San Bernardino wants six of his machines, he assumes it’s a mistake. Then he drives out there. The moment he lays eyes on the original McDonald’s, run by Mac (John Carroll Lynch) and Dick McDonald (Nick Offerman), it’s as if he's been struck with a vision on the road to Damascus.

The brothers happily explain their revolutionary business model. Henry Ford-like standardization in the kitchen sends a burger from the grill to a customer in 30 seconds. Paper packaging means no dishes to wash. They've cut out the car hops zooming around on roller skates taking orders and people in the cars waiting for food. Everybody just walks up, places their order, and walks away with their food in a matter of seconds.

They've eliminated jukeboxes and places to hang out, so they've cut back on the teenage hooligans (it was the ‘50s, after all). Instead of the fast-food Gehenna so commonly associated with McDonald’s now, the brothers’ original vision looks bright, sunny, fun, and quirky, its serpentine lines of customers anticipating the faithful who, decades later, assembling outside Shake Shacks.

Indeed, Kroc’s face lights up as though he’s discovered gold. He instantly intuits that one could franchise this model -- with its high turnover, delicious fries, and distinctive golden arches -- all around a rapidly suburbanizing nation. The brothers reluctantly agree to his plan. That’s where the problems arise. The McDonalds are happy to try the franchise thing, but really, they just want to run a burger stand they can be proud of. The brothers are small businessmen; Kroc, for all his talk about family and Americana populism, is a pirate. “If my competitor were drowning,” he declares. “I’d walk over and put a hose in his mouth.”

Robert D. Siegel’s script doesn’t position Kroc as any kind of visionary. He’s a happy workaholic who can’t see the light go out in his wife’s eyes and freely admits that nothing will ever satisfy him. Kroc is the guy who will keep firing away at a problem until it’s solved or he’s dead and buried. Keaton plays him as another of his nervy and slightly predatory neurotics, all teeth and squint. It’s a captivating performance, particularly placed in opposition to Lynch and Offerman’s more laid back characters.

Glossily shot and speedy in pace, The Founder shares some of the problems that were present in Hancock’s Saving Mr. Banks. That film’s portrayal of Walt Disney, another great Midwestern standardizer and seller of sentimentality -- who, incidentally, met Kroc while both were serving in World War I -- was somewhat less dark than this one’s take on Kroc. But both films ultimately didn’t know what to do with their protagonists.

As The Founder moves into its later stretches, a certain lassitude sets in. As Kroc is busy taking credit for all of the McDonalds’ creations, they cluelessly slave away back in San Bernardino, telling each other -- and sometimes Kroc, during phone calls routinely ending in angry hang-ups -- that they mean to uphold their standards. When Kroc hints at saving money by using instant milkshake mix instead of real ice cream, they erupt in horror and ask whether next he’ll be asking to sell frozen French fries.

The building tensions create a creepy sort of spectacle, as we watch Kroc circle his prey and amass his empire. But it’s too clear what's coming, at least to anyone who's driven an American highway during the past half century. “Ambition!” Kroc shouts. “That’s the stuff of life.” But it isn’t always enough stuff for engaging drama.






The Dance of Male Forms in Denis' 'Beau travail'

Claire Denis' masterwork of cinematic poetry, Beau travail, is a cinematic ballet that tracks through tone and style the sublimation of violent masculine complexes into the silent convulsions of male angst.


The Cradle's 'Laughing in My Sleep' Is an Off-kilter Reflection of Musical Curiosity

The Cradle's Paco Cathcart has curated a thoughtfully multifarious album. Laughing in My Sleep is an impressive collection of 21 tracks, each unapologetic in their rejection of expectations.


Tobin Sprout Goes Americana on 'Empty Horses'

During the heyday of Guided By Voices, Tobin Sprout wasn't afraid to be absurd amongst all that fuzz. Sprout's new album, Empty Horses, is not the Tobin Sprout we know.


'All In: The Fight for Democracy' Spotlights America's Current Voting Restrictions as Jim Crow 2.0

Featuring an ebullient and combative Stacey Abrams, All In: The Fight for Democracy shows just how determined anti-democratic forces are to ensure that certain groups don't get access to the voting booth.


'Transgender Street Legend Vol. 2' Finds Left at London "At My Peak and Still Rising"

"[Pandemic lockdown] has been a detriment to many people's mental health," notes Nat Puff (aka Left at London) around her incendiary, politically-charged new album, "but goddamn it if I haven't been making some bops here and there!"


Daniel Romano's 'How Ill Thy World Is Ordered' Is His Ninth LP of 2020 and It's Glorious

No, this is isn't a typo. Daniel Romano's How Ill Thy World Is Ordered is his ninth full-length release of 2020, and it's a genre-busting thrill ride.


The Masonic Travelers Offer Stirring Rendition of "Rock My Soul" (premiere)

The Last Shall Be First: the JCR Records Story, Volume 1 captures the sacred soul of Memphis in the 1970s and features a wide range of largely forgotten artists waiting to be rediscovered. Hear the Masonic Travelers "Rock My Soul".


GLVES Creates Mesmerizing Dark Folktronica on "Heal Me"

Australian First Nations singer-songwriter GLVES creates dense, deep, and darkish electropop that mesmerizes with its blend of electronics and native sounds on "Heal Me".


Otis Junior and Dr. Dundiff Tells Us "When It's Sweet" It's So Sweet

Neo-soul singer Otis Junior teams with fellow Kentuckian Dr. Dundiff and his hip-hop beats for the silky, groovy "When It's Sweet".


Lars and the Magic Mountain's "Invincible" Is a Shoegazey, Dreamy Delight (premiere)

Dutch space pop/psychedelic band Lars and the Magic Mountain share the dreamy and gorgeous "Invincible".


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" Wryly Looks at Lost Love (premiere + interview)

Singer-songwriter Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" is a less a flat-earther's anthem and more a wry examination of heartache.


Big Little Lions' "Distant Air" Is a Powerful Folk-Anthem (premiere)

Folk-pop's Big Little Lions create a powerful anthem with "Distant Air", a song full of sophisticated pop hooks, smart dynamics, and killer choruses.


The Flat Five Invite You to "Look at the Birdy" (premiere)

Chicago's the Flat Five deliver an exciting new single that exemplifies what some have called "twisted sunshine vocal pop".


Brian Bromberg Pays Tribute to Hendrix With "Jimi" (premiere + interview)

Bass giant Brian Bromberg revisits his 2012 tribute to Jimi Hendrix 50 years after his passing, and reflects on the impact Hendrix's music has had on generations.

Jedd Beaudoin

Shirley Collins' ​'Heart's Ease'​ Affirms Her Musical Prowess

Shirley Collins' Heart's Ease makes it apparent these songs do not belong to her as they are ownerless. Collins is the conveyor of their power while ensuring the music maintains cultural importance.


Ignorance, Fear, and Democracy in America

Anti-intellectualism in America is, sadly, older than the nation itself. A new collection of Richard Hofstadter's work from Library of America traces the history of ideas and cultural currents in American society and politics.

By the Book

Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto (excerpt)

Just as big tech leads world in data for profit, the US government can produce data for the public good, sans the bureaucracy. This excerpt of Julia Lane's Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto will whet your appetite for disruptive change in data management, which is critical for democracy's survival.

Julia Lane

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.