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.