The Founder is one of the most American movies in recent memory, and not just because it’s about the founding of McDonald’s — though there are few things more American than a burger and fries served in a paper bag.
The Founder wrestles all sorts of ideas that are baked into the American psyche, like innovation, efficiency, industry, and entrepreneurship, as well as competition — which can sometimes get the better of the little guy. As the movie tells it, McDonald’s quite literally started as a small family business, but was co-opted by someone with big dreams, and turned into the equivalent of a big-box store that ends up putting the mom-and-pop shop out of business.
Former McDonald’s CEO Ray Kroc, who was responsible for the mass expansion of the McDonald brothers’ burger-stand concept, is the “founder” of the film’s title, which should be a tip-off that this is more of an antihero story than a tale of small-business woe. Set in the 1950s and uniformly well-cast, The Founder hints at the idea that gain at all costs is not much gain at all, but it also functions as a fascinating origin story that makes you wonder what other skeletons might be lurking in McDonalds’s corporate closets.
The Founder is the story of a man who spots a golden opportunity
The Founder opens with Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton) pitching a milkshake-making machine to a burger restaurant owner in St. Louis. The shot — a close frame of his face as he looks directly at us — is reminiscent of the shot that opens the seventh season of Mad Men, when Freddy Rumsen is pitching a watch campaign to Peggy Olson, using words written for him by Don Draper (who is desperate to get back to work and using Freddy as his mouthpiece).
Intentional echo or not, the similar shot in The Founder has the same connotations: Here is a man who is hopeful but desperate, trying desperately to hang onto his business, his home, his wife (Laura Dern), and his self-respect. Ray has had a string of “big ideas” that have failed, and the milkshake machine seems to be the next one; nobody understands why mixing a bunch of milkshakes at once (instead of one at a time) is a good idea.
So when Ray gets an order for six machines from a small burger stand in San Bernardino, California, he’s understandably suspicious. But he calls to confirm the order, and they up it to eight.
Flabbergasted, Ray gets in his car and drives across the country to see what on earth this McDonald’s is all about. When he gets there, he discovers the best, quickest burger he can imagine, at a walk-up burger stand — a revelation in an age of drive-thrus characterized by slow service and wrong orders.
Kroc can’t believe what he’s seeing, and he talks his way into a tour of the place with the congenial brothers who run it: Mac McDonald (John Carroll Lynch) and his brother Dick (Nick Offerman). Mac and Dick have taken the assembly line concept perfected by Henry Ford and applied it to hamburgers, and they explain the optimization process — which includes chalk drawings on a tennis court — to Ray over dinner. He’s enthralled.
Eventually Ray talks Mac and Nick into entering a partnership to franchise McDonald’s, something about which they’re dubious after an earlier failed attempt. But his enthusiasm is contagious, and McDonald’s takes off like gangbusters. Starting with one location in the Midwest, the business rapidly expands as others buy in, like Rollie Smith (Patrick Wilson), who already owns a successful restaurant of the white-tablecloth variety, and his gorgeous wife Joan (Linda Cardellini), who catches Ray’s eye.
The rest, in several senses, is history. But how it unfolds from there plays out like Ray’s personal Breaking Bad — a morality tale with a murky conclusion.
The Founder captures both the bright and dark sides of American industry
Keaton’s performance as Ray is what keeps The Founder moving, his affected accent and aw-shucks demeanor slowly morphing into something more calculating and even, perhaps, sinister. Once Ray gets a taste of getting what he wants, he becomes insatiable, and when what was once a family restaurant becomes an empire, corners begin to get cut.
That The Founder was written by Robert D. Siegel makes sense; Siegel also wrote Big Fan and The Wrestler, movies that look like genre pieces, but are best at pinpointing the insecurities of men who’ve been beaten down by life, following them through desperate attempts to regain their self-respect.
In the hands of director John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side, Saving Mr. Banks), The Founder — which deals with many of the same matters — plays like a dark comedy, with an end that can be read as tragic or triumphant, depending on who’s telling the story. Ray, it turns out, is a branding expert, and his interest in McDonald’s has to do as much with the product and the efficiency as just knowing that a good name sells, and that Americans love a good brand.
And that’s the point. If the golden arches are a symbol of America all over the world, then The Founder is a parable, a symbol of everything that’s admirable, and disturbing, about the celebrated American spirit of industry. Thus, its ending is conflicting. We’re left feeling frustrated and angry on behalf of the McDonald brothers, and also a little impressed with Ray on behalf of ourselves.
But most of all, we’re left wanting a hamburger. Ray is right: That branding sure works.
The Founder opens in theaters on January 20.