Superman, Batman, Spiderman. These are some of the most recognizable characters in the world. In recent years, Hollywood has focused on telling the origin stories of these heroes. But, instead of telling the story of how Bruce Wayne became Batman, or how Peter Parker developed his spidey-senses, what if they told the story of how a single burger stand in San Bernardino became an international food empire with annual sales of over $125 billion? This is the story that the new movie, The Founder, tries to tell—but over the course of the film it becomes apparent that it might not be a story of heroes, but of villains.
The story follows the traveling salesman Ray Kroc, portrayed brilliantly by Michael Keaton, who, after bouncing around different get-rich schemes, is down on his luck selling rapid milkshake mixers. He hears about a stand in San Bernardino that has ordered six machines, a number he is sure is a mistake. But when he gets there he finds two brothers, Mac (John Carroll Lynch) and Dick McDonald (Nick Offerman), have created the first true fast food restaurant, McDonald’s. After receiving a tour, Kroc realizes the potential of this idea and pushes for them to franchise. Here we find the central conflict of the movie.
Both the McDonald brothers and Kroc are underdogs who are pursuing the American Dream, but their ideas of the dream differ. Kroc wants an empire while the brothers just want to make the best product they can. They resist the franchising idea out of fear of losing out on quality control. They relent when Kroc signs a contract that gives them total control. After that point, Kroc is off to the races, growing at an absurd pace. But he is frustrated by the contract he signed as the brothers are resistant to change, and his profits aren’t matching the expansion. Things change, however, when he runs into a businessman (B.J. Novak) who tells him that he is not in the hamburger business, but rather the real estate business and that Kroc should own the land that the franchises are on. With this development, the money starts pouring in, and he takes control back from the brothers.
Keaton continues his recent hot streak (Birdman, Spotlight) with a great performance of a man so blinded by his ambition that he is unable to comprehend the damage he is causing to those around him. He works with a borderline obsessive nature, completely willing himself to success. While Kroc might seem like a classic American hero, a man who started with nothing and due to his perseverance and grit, pulled himself up from his bootstraps and built a name for himself, it is clear he lacks the virtue of a true hero. The McDonald brothers call him a leech, an accurate description for what Kroc seems to have become. After all, Kroc took the two brothers’ company, he took their store, he took their name, and and took their money. Part of the deal to buy out of his contract was that the brothers would receive 1 percent of annual sales. Kroc insisted, however, that this be a handshake only deal. Once the deal was signed, he backed out and the brothers never saw their money—money which would be close to $100 million a year.
But the worst thing he took from them was their history. Kroc is pained by the fact that he is not the founder of McDonald’s, so after the contract, he tells the story that he created McDonald’s and makes business cards that declares his job title as “The Founder.” Keaton portrays all of this without ever veering into overacting or making a caricature out of him.
The film captures the heart of mid-20th-century America, with beautiful establishing shots and scenes of how life was back in the day. Some of the funniest bits of the movie come from the contrast between now and then. The audience let out a verbal gasp after the total price of a burger, fries, and drink came out to 35 cents, or when Dan McDonald stated a now ironic line: “I don’t care for that type of crass capitalism, it’s not McDonald’s.”
The film has the tough job of telling us a story we all already know the ending to—the golden arches of McDonald’s are instantly recognizable and there is no question if the company is going to be a success. Yet by telling the story through the lens of one man’s personal obsession to achieve the American Dream, and the cost of pursuing said dream, The Founder manages to turn the business deals of a fast food company into a gripping film that more than holds your attention.
Featured Image By The Weinstein Company