All may be fair in love and war – but certainly not in business, a maxim that Ray Kroc (portrayed here by Michael Keaton) would likely take pride in advertising. Kroc was a failed Illinois salesman who, at age 52, stumbled upon the restaurant McDonald’s in San Bernadino and ended up snatching it out from under the two brothers who founded it and franchising it into the empire it is today.
As The Founder opens, Kroc is traveling across the U.S. in 1954, attempting to sell milkshake machines to mostly uninterested restaurant owners. During an inventory call, he is surprised to find that a San Bernadino burger joint has ordered eight of the machines from him, so he personally makes the trip to California, where he charms the two brothers – Dick (Nick Offerman) and Mac (John Carroll Lynch) – who bear the eatery’s name.
Kroc immediately sees dollar signs and after convincing the brothers to tell him how they came up with their system of mass producing burgers, fries and shakes in 30 seconds, he attempts to convince them to franchise the restaurant. They eventually relent, but almost instantly begin to regret so as Kroc attempts to insert his own ideas into the method in which the restaurant operates.
Keaton gives a fine performance as Kroc who, at first, comes off as a Willy Loman type, but eventually grows to become a corporate monster who is vindictive, ruthless and greedy – attributes that eventually extend to fellow business associates and even his wife (Laura Dern).
The film’s strongest moments are those involving the people whom Kroc screws over – namely, Dern’s Ethel, who gets some bad news from him during a particularly devastating dinner scene, and the two McDonald brothers. Kroc frequently proclaims that his business is all about family, but it’s Dick and Mac who actually appear to treat their employees as such and run their business in a manner that could be described as familial.
In business meetings – and particularly during a scene in front of a mirror recalling Raging Bull at the film’s end as he prepares to meet with then-California governor Ronald Reagan – Kroc relies on platitudes in which he makes capitalism sound friendly, comparing the McDonald’s arches to the flag and the cross and using buzzwords – such as “persistence” – to make excuses for ruthless business practices.
While The Founder isn’t a great movie on such matters – as There Will Be Blood is – it is a consistently entertaining and well acted character study about a man whose attributes are recognizable in a certain someone who just took the highest office in the land this past weekend and is, therefore, strangely timely in its tale of a ruthless opportunist making his fortune on the backs of the little guys. I’d recommend it, but it’s a meal that is far from happy.