He’s friendly and outgoing. He looks like an ordinary man. But in The Founder, he’s The Devil.
As portrayed magnificently by Michael Keaton, Ray Kroc is a typical American traveling salesman. He’s got his sales pitch down and he never stops, even in the face of general rejection of his latest sales item, a commercial milkshake mixer.
At the age of 52, he has done alright for himself and his wife Ethel (Laura Dern), able to afford a comfortable, if modest, lifestyle in a placid Illinois neighborhood. They are a childless couple, though, and Ray’s long absences have left Ethel alone and unhappy over the years. Oblivious to his wife’s needs, Ray plows ahead.
One day, he hears from his faithful secretary — and only employee — June Martino (Kate Kneeland) that a restaurant in California has ordered six (?!) milkshake machines. Certain that it’s a mistake, he makes a long-distance telephone call and is informed that, no, that is correct, but come to think of it, better make it eight machines.
Having nothing better to do, and a bit fed up with his the poor sales he’s been experiencing at the drive-in restaurants on his self-made route, Ray drives to California on Route 66 to see for himself. (It’s 1954, and people did things like that in those days.) Upon arrival in San Bernardino, Ray is amazed to see people lined up at McDonald’s, a burger stand that serves its few menu items amazingly fast.
Soon he meets the owner/operators, Dick and Mac McDonald (Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch), and they are only too happy to show him around their small but well-designed facility, and then explain over dinner how their arrived at their “overnight” success story after more than 20 years in business.
Ray, like a friendly, outgoing, ordinary viper, wants in.
The balance of The Founder tells the story of how Ray Kroc brought franchising to the McDonald’s operation and slowly but steadily stole their concept out from under them and introduced fast-food restaurants to the United States. It’s a tale of treachery and ambition and greed, detailing how little businesses can become multinational corporations.
It’s horrifying, yet familiar. Dick and Mac are not stupid; they are, in fact, exemplary and conscientious businessmen. Their burgers may be cheap, but that’s because of efficiency, experience, and expertise, not because they cut corners on the quality of the food or tried in any way to cheat the customers.
Ray, at least as presented in the film, is obsessed with making McDonald’s as big as possible, and making himself look as good as possible in the process. He takes credit for all the ideas dreamed up by Dick and Mac, and soon tires of their contractual control of the business. That leads to the McDonald’s we all know and loathe today.
Director John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side) keeps things hopping and allows space for the actors to shine. The script by Robert D. Siegel (Big Fan) is superbly incisive. John Schwartzman’s cinematography and Carter Burwell’s musical score nicely complement the action.
Among the supporting players, Patrick Wilson and Linda Cardellini stand out for their sharp turns as a restaurant owner and his wife who cross paths with Ray.
The film really belongs to Keaton, Offerman and and Lynch; they each give terrific, beautifully-modulated performances. As the personification of evil, Keaton is sublime. We get the clear sense that the aging Ray Kroc, facing the end of his days as a very modest success, seized upon a great opportunity and then tore apart any who stood in his way to becoming a monstrous success. But quietly and, apparently, politely; it’s not like he wanted blood on his hands or stains on his conscience.
The Founder is good food for thought, especially anytime the prospect of a quick meal at McDonald’s beckons.
The film opens wide in Dallas theaters on Friday, January 20.