Movie Review: The Founder (2016)
How often does the hero of the story become the villain of the story?
“The Founder” is the story of Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton), a down-on-his-luck, 53-year-old salesman hawking milkshake mixers from the back of his car, who teams up with two California brothers to franchise a new concept, a fast-food restaurant called McDonald’s, and, through pluck, persistence and determination, turns it into a global phenomenon that on any given day feeds one percent of the world’s population.
“The Founder” is also the story of a man who steals someone else’s concept, steals someone else’s wife, breaks rules and contracts and vows and friendships, and because of his ruthless and unethical behavior becomes impossibly successful and an American icon.
Both stories are true.
A rose by any other
Before I get into the turning point of the story—how the hero becomes the villain—I’m curious if this dichotomy was the result of its filmmaking team.
There’s a scene late in “The Founder” when, after all the legal battles, one of the McDonald brothers asks Kroc why he just didn’t reproduce the concept. On the very first day, the brothers showed him everything they knew. He had the template. So why not just reproduce it elsewhere? Why franchise what they started? His answer? Their name: McDonald’s. It spoke of America, he said. It could be anything for anybody. Nobody, he added, is going to buy anything from Kroc.
In a way, I think of the filmmaking team this way, too. The movie’s screenwriter is Robert Siegel, former editor in chief of The Onion, who tends to write about the underside of the American dream (“The Wrestler”), and whose name sounds like the underside of things. Its director is John Lee Hancock, whose movies tend to have a sheen of Americana shellacked over them (“The Alamo,” “The Blind Side,” “Saving Mr. Banks”), and whose name, let’s face it, couldn’t sound more fucking All-American if it had been George Washington Crockett Boone. Hancock’s face fits the bill, too. He could be a movie star himself: jaw out to here. I admit, I’m a total bigot in this area. On some level, I doubt any film directed by someone as handsome as Hancock can be truly exceptional, since the handsome have no clue what life is like.
Anyway, to the turning point of the story.
Kroc starts out a hero because he’s an underdog. He’s going town to town, taking rejection after rejection, and buoying himself with a flask of courage and an LP on success that he listens to in cheap hotels at night. One day, his secretary tells him they received an order of six mixmasters from some outfit in San Bernardino but he figures that can’t be right. That would mean 30 milkshakes a minute. Nobody needs that many. So he calls them and indeed he’s corrected. They need eight.
For years I had a postcard of that original McDonald’s in San Bernardino, and when Ray drives there to see what’s up, and we get it recreated on the big screen, it’s like seeing, I don’t know, Ebbets Field or something: something iconic and American and long gone. But now here again.
Kroc, who is used to drive-ins, which thrived in the years immediately after World War II, and which tended to attracted teenagers generally and juvenile delinquents specifically, is initially confused by the place. By the time he pays, his food is there. In a paper bag rather than a tray. With no silverware. How does he eat? Where does he eat?
It was a system created by Dick and Mac McDonald (Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch) after decades of failures and experimentation. They reduced the menu to its most popular items: burgers, fries, soft drinks, shakes. They set up the kitchen to maximize efficiency. They got rid of waitresses and silverware. They called it the “speed-ee system.” We call it fast food.
Kroc’s brilliant idea, to franchise what they’ve created, was actually attempted by them first. Sadly, the franchisees didn’t keep up the McDonald brothers’ standards and so they decided to abandon it rather than ruin their good name. Their name meant all. But they agree to let Ray have a go in the Midwest.
He runs into the same problems: franchisees, bankrolled by country club types, add items to the menu, don’t keep the place clean, and it becomes a J.D. hangout rather than a family-friendly hangout. So Kroc starts tapping up-and-comers like himself; people with gumption. Things take off. Except the initial contract with the McDonald brothers gives him such a small percentage of the profits (and them even less) that he’s still in danger of falling into bankruptcy. Until he runs into Harry J. Sonneborn (B.J. Novak, doomed to play smart, slick characters), who gives him a way out: buy the property where the restaurant will stand, then lease it to the franchisee. A different corporation is created for this revenue stream (initially Franchise Realty Corporation, eventually the McDonald’s Corporation), so Kroc doesn’t have to run things by the brothers. Eventually he becomes rich and powerful enough to defy them—at first in small ways, then in bigger ones—and the movie begins to focus on them more.
Which is when our hero, Ray Kroc, becomes the villain.
He is truly awful. He lawyers up—he has the money now—and he buys out their contract for a lump sum of $2.7 million and a handshake promise for one percent of the annual profits, which he reneges on. They get to keep their place but get this: They have to remove the McDonald’s name. Their name. Then, out of spite, Ray opens a McDonald’s right across the street from them and puts the original McDonald’s out of business. He also divorces his long-suffering wife (Laura Dern) and marries Joan Smith (Linda Cardellini), the wife of one of his franchisees (Patrick Wilson). We last see our hero in 1970, practicing a speech he’ll give before Gov. Reagan, in which he extols the virtues of his All-American success story; in which he tells the Hancock side of things.
The ruthless gene
That’s the how. Another question: why did our hero become the villain?
I would argue it’s because Ray Kroc is what all hugely successful businessmen are: ruthless. Kroc was so desperate for so long that once he got his chance he let nothing, particularly ethics and morality, stand in his way. The McDonald brothers, meanwhile, are simply hard-working innovators who don’t carry the ruthless gene. You can see it in Lynch’s eyes in the last third of the movie: He’s amazed and sickened by the way Kroc acts, but helpless. As a result, the innovators get steamrolled by Kroc and by history. Their name goes global but it’s not theirs.
Ironically, “The Founder” itself got steamrolled by its distributors, the Weinstein Company, which initially planned on a Nov. 25 rollout (prime box office real estate) then shifted it to August (so so), before dumping it in the least-fertile box-office month of the year: January. It actually opened on one of our darkest days: January 20, 2017; Donald Trump’s inauguration day.
I assume then Weinsteins dumped it because they felt the movie has too much Siegel and not enough Hancock. It wasn’t feel-good enough. A shame. It may not be the movie America wants, but it’s certainly the movie America needs.