FILM REVIEW – THE FOUNDER. With Michael Keaton, Nick Offerman, John Carroll Lynch, Laura Dern, B. J. Novak. Written by Robert Siegel. Directed by John Lee Hancock. Rated PG-13 for brief strong language. 115 minutes.
Move over “Wall Street,” as the best movie on American capitalism may now well be THE FOUNDER, the story of how salesman Ray Kroc, brilliantly portrayed by Michael Keaton, took a California hamburger stand run by two brothers, Dick and Mac McDonald (Nick Offerman, John Carroll Lynch) and turned it into a worldwide restaurant chain.
It’s important to note that the movie portrays Kroc in all his amibiguity. It’s left to the viewer to decide if he was a marketing genius, an exploiter of the work of others, a visionary, a person consumed by greed, or some amalgam of them all. It’s to Keaton’s credit that people will come to different conclusions and that his take on Kroc is neither hero nor villain.
Kroc was selling milk shake machines when he came upon the original McDonald’s. What impressed him was how efficient it was in turning out what would later be called “fast food.” The Brothers’ operation had it down to a science–or choreography, if you will–in getting burgers, sodas, fries, and shakes to the customer as quickly as they could order. They had tried to open up a few other outlets but had little success as they could not maintain quality control.
Fascinated by the system, Kroc made a deal to expand the operation to the Midwest. It was a matter of trial-and-error as he realized that he didn’t need rich investors who would make changes disrupting the process, but people motivated by wanting to run a successful business and willing to follow an operating plan. According to the film, Kroc was willing to work with anyone, without prejudice, so long as they didn’t tinker with the system.
Inevitably, there would be conflicts with the Brothers, with Kroc chafing at need for their approval as he saw ways to rapidly expand and increase profits. They were handsomely paid when they were bought out–although not getting everything they were promised–but the real question was whether they would have done better to work with Kroc instead of trying to control him. Were they blind to the possibilities or were they noble purists who were ultimately pushed aside?
Keaton perfectly captures the excitement of a man long looking for his piece of the American Dream who realizes he’s finally found it. He’s open to suggestions on how to change and adapt, but he will not be dissuaded from his vision that he was found his way to success. It is when he starts to imagine that it is all about him–his store becomes “McDonald’s #1,” not the original operation by the Brothers–that we suspect his desire for greater success is consuming him. It’s no surprise that his relationship with his wife Ethel (Laura Dern) suffers, and he ends up involved with a woman named Joan Smith (Linda Cardellini), who is married to one of his franchisees.
“The Founder” tells us the story behind a business we all know, or think we know, and gives Michael Keaton one of his best roles ever. Don’t miss it.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His new novel, Time on My Hands: My Misadventures in Time Travel, will be released in next month. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.