Ray Kroc, the main character in The Founder, did not found anything, despite his claims to the contrary made on his business card and elsewhere. He took a small, already existing chain founded by the McDonald brothers and took it national, then international, becoming filthy rich in the process.
Ray Kroc took advantage of Richard and Maurice McDonald and essentially ripped them off for billions of dollars.
While The Founder is not a thriller, I see it as a sort of slow-motion heist movie, albeit without any guns. It’s very well-made and Michael Keaton gives a compelling perfomance as Ray Kroc, but I was totally appalled at Kroc’s behaviour. Wouldn’t, couldn’t call him a hero. Not a nice man at all. And that old tradition of sealing a deal with a handshake, “my word is my bond,” etc., etc? Forget it. Not an honourable man, either. He also stole another man’s wife, though I guess she went willingly. He was often petty too, but I’ll leave those for viewers to discover for themselves.
At the beginning of the film, Kroc is selling mixers that make several milkshakes at a time. Selling one is hard enough, so when a place in California orders several, his curiosity leads him on a trip to San Bernadino (via the legendary Route 66) to see what kind of business is selling so many milkshakes. The McDonald brothers, called Dick (Nick Offerman) and Mac (John Carroll Lynch) in the film, are doing a roaring business at their hamburger-shakes-and fries stand.
Right after Kroc orders a burger, it is placed in front of him in a paper bag. Amazing! Where to eat it? Anywhere. In your car, on a bench, in the park. Plates, cutlery? None of that. . .Eat it with your hands, just as many people around him are doing, with ecstatic expressions on their faces.
We’re meant to understand that this was a revolutionary thing at the time. The brothers are quite happy to show Kroc how their employees can work so quickly and efficiently, and reveal how much time they spent refining their methods and fine-tuning the layout of the kitchen. (All their employees were men, if I recall correctly.)
Kroc is very impressed and has visions of McDonald’s restaurants all over the U.S. He shouts “Franchise, franchise, franchise!” to the brothers. They say they’ve already tried that, but bad behaviour by franchisees makes them reluctant to continue expanding.
However, I did read on the Internet that expansion had just paused temporarily, because the person handling franchising for them had fallen ill. They just needed a new employee to continue the work. Kroc becomes that employee.
Dick, Mac and Kroc get along relatively well in person, but things start falling apart when they have to communicate via phone calls and letters. The brothers find Kroc too demanding and too impatient; Kroc is exasperated by their caution and slow decision making. The relationship becomes more and more strained. The brothers realize too late that they “let the fox into the henhouse.” Something has to give.
Laura Dern has the thankless role of Kroc’s first wife, Ethel. She doesn’t get much screen time (just as Ethel probably didn’t get much alimony, either). Mostly she looks sad or worried, and why not? Her husband spends most of his time on the road and his previous schemes did not pan out. Kroc’s remarks to her indicate that he sees her as an unsupportive nag, but there’s no evidence of that at all.
The Founder does not even mention Wife No. 2 (Jane Dobbins Green,1963–1968), and the romancing of wife No. 3 (Joan Mansfield, from 1969 until 1984, when Kroc died) mostly takes place offscreen. Their future together is telegraphed by Kroc’s smitten look when he first sees her, seated at the piano in her husband’s fancy restaurant. To make things clearer still, they sing a duet together, while seated at that piano. They sound quite good, too. The song is “Pennies From Heaven.” Prophetic in another way. (Google tells me that lounge pianist was one of Kroc’s many former jobs.)
On more than one occasion, Kroc talks about McDonald’s as a special place for U.S. families to gather; he expresses a wish that every town have one, and compares McDonalds to worthy institutions like churches and courthouses. (“McDonald’s can be the new American church!”) I wasn’t sure if that was just hype for the McDonald brothers and his potential investors, if it reflected his true beliefs, or if the scriptwriter Robert D. Siegel was pulling our collective legs.
We alll bring our own view and prejudices to the cinema, so a closing scene, showing Kroc practicing a speech honouring Ronald Reagan, was just another nail in the coffin. Apparently, he also made illegal donations to Richard Nixon, presumably to influence legislation on wage and price controls. On a less serious note, when asked to choose between a chocolate or vanilla ersatz milkshake, he takes the vanilla! So boring.
Ray Kroc died a very rich man. Some viewers might admire him and think he was so clever to outfox the McDonald brothers. I wonder if he had a clear conscience? His third wife gave a lot of that money away, so perhaps she didn’t have one. Could have been a tax dodge, too, of course.
I have no idea why, but Norman Greenbaum’s 1969 hit Spirit in the Sky plays during the closing credits of The Founder. It sounded great coming through the cinema’s sound system, and I enjoyed hearing it, but how is it connected to Ray Kroc’s story? If there is such a place as heaven, I would not expect to find Kroc in it.
The Founder: directed by John Lee Hancock; written by Robert D. Siegel; with Michael Keaton; Laura Dern; Nick Offerman; John Carroll Lynch; Linda Cardellini; Patrick Wilson; B. J. Novak.