In the spirit of the original McDonald’s brothers restaurant, I’m going to make this quick. The Founder is the story of Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton), a traveling salesman, who stumbled upon a pair of brothers in San Bernardino in the mid-1950s who were making burgers, fries and drinks in a matter of seconds, rather than the 20-minute wait of most drive-up restaurants serving similar food. By designing their kitchen to eliminate waste and maximize efficiency, Dick and Mac McDonald (Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch) essentially invented the fast-food model, and the montage that illustrates their trial-and-error phase is the first of many fascinating moments in this movie.
Every so often, the Tribune or one of the other local newspapers will retell the story of Kroc and his relationship with the McDonald’s business. For better or for worse, The Founder does a fairly straight-forward, no-frills, nothing-but-the-facts version of that story. Kroc led the charge to franchise the restaurant chain, beginning with a string of locations in the Chicago area, but the deal he struck with the brothers didn’t make him enough money to live in the lifestyle he dreamed of. Decades of being a salesman had taken a toll both on his self esteem and his marriage to wife Ethel (Laura Dern), and The Founder does attempt to connect Kroc’s awful behavior to pretty much everyone in his life to justify his unfulfilled vision of himself as a wealthy entrepreneur.
Director John Lee Hancock (The Rookie, The Blind Side, Saving Mr. Banks), working from a screenplay by Robert Siegel (The Wrestler, Big Fan) specializes in telling true stories, and he does very little to sugarcoat or smooth over Kroc’s shady dealings, especially when he effectively steals McDonald’s out from under the brothers by buying the land on which the restaurants were built and charging the brothers to lease the land from him. Kroc became a real estate mogul almost by accident, and it made him disgustingly rich. To him, his underhanded deal was the McDonald brothers fault for not being ambitious enough, for thinking too small, when all they wanted to do was make the best food they could and serve it quickly.
So why should you care about The Founder and its tale of Kroc as the ultimate asshole businessman? First and foremost is Keaton, who allows us to watch the gradual transformation of Kroc from a desperate salesman to someone who finally gets a taste of the good life and it turns him into an absolute monster. If this were a work of fiction, the story might end with Kroc seeing the error in his ways and helping the McDonald brothers out. Instead, he stole their idea and their name and turned it into one of the largest businesses in the world.
Also giving nice turns are Patrick Wilson and Linda Cardellini as Rollie and Joan Smith who team up with Kroc on a money-saving idea that drives one of many wedges between Ray and the brothers. And if it gives you any sense of what type of man Kroc turned into: the much younger Joan Smith became wife No. 2.
The Founder feels like a noble and worthy attempt to set the record straight, and on that front, it completely succeeds. As a cinematic experience, it looks great, the period details are wonderful (especially the re-creation of the old-school McDonald’s architecture), and Keaton adds a depth to Kroc I’m not even sure was in the script. As I said, it’s nothing fancy, but it gets the job done, and it may teach you a thing or two about the death of the handshake deal.