With almost 37,000 locations around the world, McDonald's is one of the most ubiquitous brands on Earth. The story of how it became that way, though, is one filled with greed, deception, and unchecked ambition, as detailed in The Founder.
Michael Keaton plays Ray Kroc, a salesman in the early 1950s constantly on the hunt for his big break. He finds it when he sells a milkshake machine to Dick and Mac McDonald (Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch), two brothers who ran the original McDonald’s restaurant in San Bernardino, California.
Impressed with their streamlined menu and assembly line process that cuts customer wait times down to almost nothing, Kroc convinces the brothers to let him franchise the restaurant back in his home state of Illinois. The two sides are at odds almost from the start, with Kroc’s desire to expand the chain as much as possible colliding with the brothers’ methodical nature.
The film, directed by John Lee Hancock and written by Robert Siegel, may hit you differently depending on where you stand on possibly shady business practices. As depicted in the film, Kroc will let nothing stand in the way of his goals, not even a contract he signed with the brothers. And the brothers, perhaps too nice for their own good, are unable to stop him once he gets rolling.
Kroc’s callous ways extend beyond the business. His constant drive keeps him apart from his wife, Ethel (Laura Dern), for weeks at a time, and when he is with her, he’s rarely “with” her. When Joan Smith (Linda Cardellini), the wife of a franchisee, catches his eye, she becomes just as much a quest for him as the expansion of McDonald’s.
The story presents quite the dilemma for the moviegoer: How can you “root” for the main character, a man who’s a louse who only seems to be out for himself? It wouldn’t be nearly as difficult if his opposition was someone with similar ethics, but because the McDonalds appear to be good, decent men, Kroc’s bamboozling of them is extra tough to take.
It’s actually quite a nuanced performance by Keaton. As played by him, it’s not hard to understand why people would trust Kroc. He’s enthusiastic, affable, and persuasive. Even when his motives turn darker, his Midwestern nature draws people in, often to their detriment. Not many actors can pull off that duality, but Keaton does it extremely well.
As a film that shows the way business can often be, The Founder is compelling. You may not like the manner in which Ray Kroc made his fortune, but it sure is one hell of a story.