The Founder will leave a bad taste in your mouth – and it has nothing to do with the fast-food giant McDonald’s. Forget the greasy French fries (actually, I love the fries), the jumbo sugary drinks, or the rest of the high cholesterol menu – the food is not the problem – the Founder is the problem: Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton). Keaton plays Kroc brilliantly, beginning as the Illinois down-trodden milkshake mixer salesman driving around in a beat up blue Plymouth and ending as the celebrated Beverly Hills entrepreneur off to have dinner with California Governor Reagan. The movie tells the story of Kroc’s gradual theft of all that we have come to know as the McDonald’s empire.
In San Bernadino, California, in the early 1950’s brothers Mac McDonald (John Carroll Lynch) and Dick McDonald (Nick Offerman) devised the first fast-food restaurant – introducing the 30-second hamburger dressed with pickle, onion, ketchup and mustard, the bag lunch, and the window order. When Kroc saw the operation, he saw franchise potential and gradually disenfranchised the brothers. He also disenfranchised one of his franchisees Rollie Smith (Patrick Wilson) of his wife Joan (Linda Cardellini). This was quite an accomplishment when you see the real photos and film clips of Kroc – a portly, egocentric, aging man who escaped to Beverly Hills without ever escaping the roots and hunger of his mid-west origins.
In the beginning we really like Ray Kroc. And we sympathize with his long-suffering and beautiful wife Ethel (Laura Dern) who has to plead with Ray to take her out to dinner at the club a mere two times a month. Ray is a hustler – a man always looking for the next big thing – a salesman who is perpetually on the road. He is a hard worker – he lives on perseverance.
As Ray seizes power from the brothers, he always manages to find just the right kind of jackals to do his bidding, though to give him credit he initially pulls a burger flipper from the ranks to be his right hand. But imagine – he even steals the brothers’ birth-right – the use of their own name on their own burger joint. The brothers gradually realize they’ve lost everything they’ve worked for to a man who understands business, not integrity. Think on that.
The acting throughout is excellent. Keaton is positively exhausting as we watch him hustle his way to the top of the fast-food empire, morphing over time from a man who is just out to make a deal to a man who is just a monster. The rest of the cast is spot on. The McDonald brothers are so realistically portrayed, they seem to be people we know – or maybe wish we knew. Laura Dern is positively regal as Keaton’s wife – and we wonder what on earth she is doing with this loser – her patience is so annoying. Of course, she gets dumped in the end – Kroc, ultimately, was not a man to reward loyalty.
It is a movie well worth watching. It gives us insight into the kind of all-encompassing ambition that feeds on itself, leaving the host bereft of morality and any redeeming character. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. Cash does not buy class. A good point to ponder.