Commentary by Andy Ray
Ray Kroc is known worldwide as the founder of the McDonald’s restaurant chain. But he really did not establish McDonald’s. He downright stole the idea. John Lee Hancock’s new film “The Founder” traces Kroc’s climb up the business ladder and introduces us to the McDonald brothers – founders of the very first McDonald’s in 1940.
When we first meet Kroc (Michael Keaton, in his best recent performance), it’s 1954. He’s a down-and-out salesman, selling restaurant equipment out of the trunk of his car to individual restaurants in downstate Illinois. One wonders how he and his wife Ethel (Laura Dern) manage to make ends meet. Then Kroc gets an order for six of his automatic milkshake machines – all for one single restaurant in San Bernardino. Kroc’s inquisitive nature causes him to drive all the way to California to see just what kind of a restaurant operation could possibly require six multi-shake machines.
There, he meets Dick and Mac McDonald, owners and founders of the first “fast food” restaurant in America. Only too happy to show off their enterprise to a curious young salesman, the McDonalds brothers explain how they took the inefficient diner model, eliminated the carhops, pared down the menu to just three items (burgers, fries, and soft drinks), and streamlined the food preparation so that food was always available when a customer placed an order. It sounds so simple in 2017, but boy was it revolutionary then.
Kroc is so impressed, he begs the McDonald brothers to let him franchise their business. Reluctant at first, due to a disappointing first try several years earlier, the McDonalds finally allow Kroc to open some restaurants in the Chicago suburbs. He is to use their name, prepare his food exactly as in the San Bernardino restaurant and give most of the profits to them. It’s a bad deal, but it’s the best Kroc can hope for. He takes the idea and runs with it, establishing dozens of restaurants across the Midwest in very short order.
The McDonald brothers are wary of the overnight growth, and Kroc does have to fire a few franchisees due to unauthorized menu expansion and unclean conditions. His restaurants’ success rate is phenomenal, but he still isn’t making any money.
Enter Harry Sonneborn (B.J. Novak), a young accountant who convinces Kroc to buy up land for additional restaurants, and then lease the properties to the franchisees. Unfortunately, doing so breaks his contract with the McDonald brothers. To say they are unhappy is an understatement. Dick McDonald even ends up in the hospital with kidney failure.
While “The Founder” is a factual account, we are disappointed to see Kroc act in such a diabolical manner when he made every effort to play by the McDonald brothers rules up to this point. Keaton’s initial young Ray Kroc is a bit of a sad-sack Willie Loman type salesman – the kind Jack Lemmon used to play to the hilt. But as the McDonald’s empire grows, he becomes a more ruthless businessman. He must continually feed his hunger for evermore business. I can’t say I was totally surprised by learning this, but I was disheartened nonetheless.
In his later years, Keaton still plays Kroc as a basically loveable guy, even though his business practices don’t always warrant such affection. It’s a tougher role to play than you might think. It would have been easy to play Ray Kroc with the bluster of Broderick Crawford in “All the King’s Men.” But that wouldn’t have been an accurate portrayal.
This is the best acting of Keaton’s recent resurgence. I was a big Keaton fan during his comedic heyday in the 1980s. But I became an even bigger fan when I saw him play a strictly dramatic role in the 1988 drama “Clean and Sober.” His career took a nosedive after the first two “Batman” reboots in the early ’90s, only to resurface in 2014 with the overrated “Birdman.” While “Spotlight” was an excellent ensemble film, Keaton’s performance did not particularly stand out. In fact, his Boston accent was the least convincing of all the “Spotlight” leads. But this time, he’s back in his element. Ray Kroc is the perfect vehicle for Keaton, and he plays it with assurance.
John Lee Hancock’s direction is solid. This is his best picture since 2009’s “The Blind Side.” I like the fact that he doesn’t focus too much on Kroc’s personal life, and keeps the spotlight on Kroc the businessman. The most absorbing scenes are those in which we see the burgers being made assembly-line style. But as I mentioned, I don’t feel like I learned anything from “The Founder” that I didn’t already know or imagine was true about Ray Kroc. I did enjoy the inclusion of the McDonald brothers (Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch) as instrumental to the story, even after Kroc’s initial voyage to California.
And perhaps this is a small point, but I also want to commend Hancock for eliminating smoking from a story, which takes place in the 1950s and ’60s, when smoking was prevalent in our society. Would it have been more accurate to include it? Yes. But would it have been necessary? No. Since the medical profession is desperately trying to keep teens from picking up the smoking habit, I’m fine with eliminating it from films set in the days of yore. After all, if Mr. Potato Head and Santa Claus no longer smoke pipes, there’s no reason Ray Kroc and his cohorts must smoke cigarettes.
So “The Founder” is compelling, up to a point. It’s not the greatest picture out there this Oscar season, but this may finally be the year Michael Keaton is nominated for Best Actor – and actually deserves it.