Ahhhh fast food chains. They changed not only the way we eat in this country but have literally had huge effects on our agricultural and employment systems. Unfortunately the impact they have made has been less than desirable and while they may provide cheap, convenient, comfort food style munchies, the behind the scenes stories and aspects of these restaurants tend to be more like a nightmare and less like the family friendly good guy image they try to sell us in their advertising. The story of how McDonald’s went from a small burger stand run by a pair of brothers to the international multi-billion dollar corporation it is today may seem like the average American dream success story, however a closer look reveals the kind of things you really would find in nightmares.
Let me start with a basic synopsis of what happens. The McDonald brothers go into business together, fine tune their model, and end up with a surprisingly successful idea. Enter the traveling salesman, Ray Kroc, in desperate need of a win who visits the brothers’ restaurant and immediately sees the potential for growth. The brothers are protective of their name and brand, after a failed attempt at franchising that saw a decline in quality at the other sites and are understandably apprehensive about trying again. However, Kroc is full of drive, passion, and excitement and he does what he has made a living from and sells them on the idea. While it’s a slow go at first, eventually McDonald’s start popping up all over and before you know it, they are boasting “Over 1 Billion Burgers Served!”
Sounds like your average rags to riches story, right? The problem is it’s been much more successful for Ray Kroc and the company’s shareholders than it was for the brothers, which is the part of the story we don’t hear about very often. If you’re under the impression that the McDonald brothers made millions off the deal and retired in fat cat type luxury, then you’d be wrong. Despite their best efforts to maintain control, their faith in a man who seemingly shared their sense of integrity was sadly misplaced, as Kroc turns out to be a crook.
Kroc definitely seems to have that smarmy politician vibe going and Michael Keaton nails that with little to no effort. In perfect juxtaposition to that would be boy next door types, the McDonald brothers, played by Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch. The self-proclaimed American ham himself, Nick Offerman, famous for his character Ron Swanson of Parks and Recreation fame, pulls off a highly efficient, detail orientated, no nonsense businessman trying to clean up the drive-in business model while delivering quality food. His brother Mac is yet another stroke of casting brilliance as Lynch portrays him as the wide eyed dreamer more willing to take a risk with Kroc. Definitely bringing a more heartfelt, faith in your fellow man energy to the pair of brothers, its Mac who is seen as the one pushing to trust Kroc while Dick is suspect every step of the way.
The Founder is good in the sense that I think it keeps its balance. It doesn’t have to force feed you the idea that Ray Kroc is a sheisty business man, nor does it play up the brothers as being made of a higher moral fiber. It lays out a Hollywood version of what happened. While you can definitely walk away feeling like the Brothers were taken advantage of or swindled by someone, I’m sure there are people who have the perspective that maybe Dick and Mac were happier to stay small and local and lacked the grander vision that Kroc seemed to have. I personally fall into that first category and watching this movie just renewed my conviction to avoid patronizing large chain restaurants, especially McDonald’s. Fast food chains that see billions in profit selling food that lacks any real nutritional value, puts such a demand on our agricultural resources that it literally created the need for “factory farming,” and pays its employees a joke of a salary while treating them like they are disposable, practices that became common due to the standards laid out by the leader in the industry, McDonald’s.
All of this being said, The Founder is not a film trying to get you to stop eating Big Macs and protest the franchise model. It delivers a behind the scenes look at the beginnings of what would become a global phenomenon. Writer Robert Siegel, also known for The Wrestler; a movie that deals with some of the not so pretty side effects of another multi-billion dollar business, does a good job of not completely villainizing Kroc while still showing you the negative impact that some of the decisions he made had on those around him. Whether or not he made these decisions knowing it would adversely affect these people is left up to the viewer to decide. Even when it comes to his relationship with his wife, we are shown their general unhappiness but Laura Dern plays her very melancholy and she is even written to come across as a bit unsupportive, so when the inevitable split finally comes, it doesn’t feel one sided. That’s not to say that he doesn’t seem to carry on a supposedly business based friendship with one of his newly acquired franchisees, a relationship that the movie very subtly hints at being more than just friends, but never actually goes as far as to portray them being together until after his divorce. The subtle hints at their flirtation combined with the real life timing of his divorce and their marriage suggests there was definitely more going on.
Again, a movie like this is all about perspective and while plenty of people will say he is absolutely the villain in this story, I’m sure there are some that would disagree. In the beginning of the film, we are treated to a scene in which the brothers tell their story to Kroc, how they started, their pitfalls and triumphs and how they, despite their hard work and research, came to a point where they thought it was over, only to be surprised by the fact that their idea of delivering you a fresh, quality meal in less than 30 seconds had finally taken off. It’s the dream big/work hard success story within a larger dream/big/work hard success story with the only difference seeming to be one’s commitment to quality and integrity and the others’ commitment to a larger profit.
This movie is well shot and brilliantly cast. I loved every minute of it even when I was enjoying hating Keaton in the role of a capitalist more concerned with the bottom line than with the repercussions of what he is doing to get there. It never has a feeling of trying to preach or tell you how to feel about what’s happening in the story, it simply shares an interesting story. When you take into account that Hollywood movies have just as much, if not more filler than the average McDonald’s burger, but that somewhere in there is some genuine meat, you can come away knowing that while this may not be the 100% accurate account of exactly what happened, there are definitely some truths in there. Either way, the finished product is tasty and in no need of a fancy package to help sell you on it. In a vat of films that can come across staler than day old fries, The Founder delivers a story that’s as fresh as the milk in your shake before they started using powdered mixes.