Synopsis – The story of Ray Kroc, a salesman who turned two brothers’ fast food eatery, McDonald’s, into one of the biggest restaurant businesses in the world.
My Take – Biographical dramas tell stories about significant people in history, but they are always much more than that right? The person chosen for the bio-pic reflects something about the values of the era and the society from which they came. At 1st this film may seem like just another tale of the American Dream, the kind of tale we’ve seen a million times before, revolving around an American who wants to become successful, sacrifices morality for money, we have seen this in films like The Social Network & The Wolf of Wall Street. But this film has something new to contribute to genre. The film goes well beyond the story of a global hamburger empire to the values that made McDonald’s possible and it does not paint a pretty picture. The term “persistence is everything” is heard at the beginning and the end of this film but when decoded it means persistent treachery, greed, and a code of ethics toxic enough to remove some gloss from the world’s most recognized golden arches. For many the thought nowadays of takeaway food is but a convenience we all enjoy (some more than others) but at one stage during human history the very idea of having your burger, fries and ice-cold Coke ready in mere seconds was a novelty that began sweeping the nation of America before taking over the world as we now know it today. A staple for over 60 years, McDonalds restaurants are a mainstay of everyday life, a reliable source of cheeseburger delicacies, crispy French fries and refreshing beverages that continue to supply the goods to those both young and those young at heart. Whether you love the McDonald’s brand or hate it, this film offers a compelling view into the way it has captivated us all with its worldwide presence. But here, John Lee Hancock‘s film is imbedded with both an energy and pace that elevates it above the usual bio-fair and with another awards worthy turn from Michael Keaton as its centerpiece, this enthralling slice of history is a fabulously entertaining ride tinged in nostalgic 1950’s vibes and garnished with a quick- smart script from The Wrestler screenwriter Robert D. Siegel.
Based on the life of American businessman and founder of the McDonald’s Corporation, the story follows Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton) who in his 50s is still working the life of long-distance commission-only salesman and living a boring life with his neglected wife Ethel (Laura Dern). Upon learning from his secretary June Martino (Kate Kneeland) that a burger restaurant in California had ordered several of the five-at-a-time milkshake machines he was employed to sell, Ray is intrigued by the fact that any burger house that needed the capacity to make 20 or more milkshakes at a time had to be worth looking at, and decides to drive across the States to check it out. What he finds that, in San Bernadino, already nestled beneath a massive golden “M”, was the restaurant, found in 1948 and still run by the McDonald brothers, Mac McDonald (John Carroll Lynch) & Dick McDonald (Nick Offerman). Kroc looked at their production line kitchen, their simple and easily recited menu, and the queues that were stretching around the block, and he knew that he had found his way into the world he had been clawing at for years. Kroc, more than anything in existence, wanted to be a successful businessman. The brothers trust Ray, tell him their secrets, and in 1954 Ray becomes the franchise manager responsible for setting up new stores. Driven by insatiable greed, Ray wants to go national but the brothers fear loss of quality control. When Ray realizes that owning the property on which stores operate gives him complete control of the business, with the help of finance manager Harry J. Sonneborn (B.J. Novak) and his associate Fred Turner (Justin Randell Brooke), his takeover plans are rolled into place. Hollywood’s favorite stereotype is not the action man. It’s the entrepreneur – the character who goes after his prey with guile rather than a gun in pursuit of that durable cliché “the American dream”. Such a man was Ray Kroc, whom we can thank for the 35,000 McDonald’s fast food outlets across the globe. He was not the company’s founder – although he claimed to be. According to John Lee Hancock’s film about the corporate tussles which brought the world’s most famous – or perhaps notorious – fast food nation into being, the McDonald’s brand was not his invention. The design, with its intricately engineered production line and its golden arches, was the work of the McDonald brothers, two Californian businessmen who were content to run their single, very successful take-away shop until Kroc came along. It was his siren call which set the arches on the march. Director John Lee Hancock is no stranger to biopic film, having bought to the big screen Saving Mr Banks and The Blind Side in previous years and while those films had some compelling performances they also had some really great source material to work from. Capturing the time, place and allurement of this mankind changing business model, the film does a great job of transporting us back in time and by being one of those rare biopic films that grabs you from the get-go and doesn’t let up. The film turns out to be a timely story of a businessman without ideas of his own who nonetheless becomes successful by stubborn force of will—and a willingness to run roughshod over both his competition and his collaborators. Kroc is sort of an inverse Donald Trump: He makes money by obsessively trading on someone else’s name. This film arrives with remarkable timing given the current global spotlight on the home of capitalism. Millions of McDonald’s fans are regularly processed by one of the most sophisticated marketing machines on the planet. Seeing this film is a bit like finding out that Santa Claus is Satan in disguise. Good cinema not only entertains: it shows the world as it is, not as we believe it should be. The bulk of the movie follows Ray’s setbacks and breakthroughs, and introduces us to the key figures that will help him realize his plans. Foremost is Harry Sonneborn, who tells him: “You’re not in the hamburger business, you’re in the real estate business.” While scouting for McDonald’s converts, Ray even meets Joan (Linda Cardinelli), the new love of his life, the wife of a fellow mate Rollie (Patrick Wilson), who is no less business-minded than him.
As the pieces begin to fall into place, one gets a slightly creepy feeling. We know where this revolution is heading. Always in the background are the McDonald brothers who Ray begins to see as his mortal enemies – the anchor holding back a ship under full sail. The final resolution with Dick and Mac takes place at the end of the film, when Ray has built up formidable corporate momentum. It’s a moment of super-sized triumph and supreme grubbiness. The film tells a story that should be told, and it does it brilliantly. The movie, from a screenplay by former Onion writer Robert Siegel, doesn’t exactly aim for dispassionate objectivity, depicting Lynch’s Mac as a friendly, gentle-natured man, and even the gruffer Dick as an exacting perfectionist without strong people skills. But it nonetheless approaches Kroc with some ambiguity, in that the movie mostly sticks to his point of view, and doesn’t portray him as an unadulterated monster. How could it, really, with Keaton in the part, dominating scene after scene? Kroc has vision and drive, if not necessarily talent, per se (one of his biggest innovations, at least so far as the enriching of his personal wealth is concerned, comes from a third party). The movie leaves room to wonder if there’s something extraordinary, if not exactly respectable, about his ability to reshape the fast-food industry to his liking. We feel for the brothers, but does Robert Siegel? The artfully constructed script has us look at the story from Kroc’s standpoint. And this split perspective puts the film at the high end of what is fast becoming a distinguished genre in American movie-making: the forensic corporate drama. Like Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network, Kroc is a flawed figure with a lot to answer for, yet Siegel and Hancock leads us towards this conclusion very gently. The script was enjoyable enough to hold your interest but as is the case with every biopic these days those typical montages of information both in the beginning and also at the end are in this film as cliché as it is. Here it happens when we get the McDonald brothers back story. You’ll also find unlike the recent film The Big short where they had a really good way of explaining technical things in this film, in this film business ideas were discussed but not necessarily explained for the layman. Plus, I felt that at times the McDonald’s story was lacking elements of what those great stories had for example unlike Eddie the Eagle or Hacksaw Ridge you feel that there was no heroic figure to get behind and root for as such. Performances are uniformly solid, and the film is undeniably compelling for much of its run time. Michael Keaton is in a class of his own when it comes to portraying deeply flawed people living on the edge of sanity or evil. From the opening scenes his eyes express callous disregard for others, and at one point he boasts that if a competitor was drowning he would not hesitate to put a running hose deep down the victim’s throat. His flawed humanity is contrasted by the authenticity and honesty represented by the brothers. Keaton‘s turn comes into the spotlight and what we’re left with is a layered character brought to life by the performer, whether it’s in comical situations or brutally raw moments shared with lawyers, Keaton is on fire here and while his ably supported by the likes of Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch, who are both endearing and pitiable as the unfortunate McDonald brothers Dick and Mac. In supporting roles, Linda Cardellini, B.J. Novak, Laura Dern, Justin Randell Brooke, Kate Kneeland and Patrick Wilson are good. On the whole, ‘The Founder’ is a well layered, nuanced, witty, well shot entertaining film that tells the worth telling story behind the rise of an empire.
Directed – John Lee Hancock
Rated – PG13
Run Time – 115 minutes