by Michael B. Hock
Scamming your way to the top… I’m loving it.
Hmmm… I should write ad copy.
Every day, McDonald’s feeds millions of people with what they generously refer to as “food.” I should disclose, I do like the occasional Big Mac. However, few people really know how the restaurant was started, and why it’s such a worldwide phenomenon, a place everyone eats even if they’re unwilling to admit they eat there. It turns out that the story is a pretty interesting one, and not one that paints it’s titular Founder, Ray Kroc, in a particularly flattering light. The Founder is a great movie about a bad person who did a big thing.
The Founder tells the story struggling milkshake mixer salesman/overall get rich kinda guy Kroc (Michael Keaton) who believes in the power of persistence. Well, that and stealing as many good ideas that he possibly can. After a brief montage of him trying to sell milkshake mixers to some local Drive-Ins, he happens upon an order to a small hamburger stand that is ordering a lot of mixers from him. Like… a lot. He heads to this new place, McDonald’s and finds that he gets lightning fast service, rather than the hours it took as evidenced in the montage we saw earlier. He meets with the McDonald Brothers.. Mac (John Carroll Lynch) and Dick (Nick Offerman), a partnership is born that… ends up screwing those two out of hundreds of millions of dollars of profit.
The Founder is a tale of American persistence, not giving up on your dreams, and about how being a truly awful person can help take you far in life.
The performances are amazing, but I have to start with Keaton as Kroc. For any actor, Kroc would be a… challenging role to play. He essentially preys upon Mac and Dick’s desire to expand their restaurant stand with some franchises, and slowly takes more and more for himself until he’s not just running McDonald’s and cuts them out of some good deals, but also manages to crush them for no apparent reason than to crush them. One of the final scenes of him opening a McDonald’s right across the street from their hamburger stand, no longer allowed to use their names, is heartbreaking.
Oh… spoilers for a 50 year old event. That really happened.
But Keaton plays him as a man who sorta earns your sympathy at the start. He’s obviously struggling, he’s obviously trying to find himself. He comes across as an underdog huckster, someone you don’t quite trust, but someone who you’ll hear out because he’s so pathetic that he deserves your ear.
Which is perfect, because that’s exactly what Mac and Dick do, and that’s why its double heartbreaking knowing that the movie is called The Founder, most of the ads feature Ray Kroc prominently, and not those two. So, you know that something is waiting for them, and a lot of the movie is waiting for that heartbreaking moment when they’re both screwed. But they play off each other well, with Dick taking a cautious approach, and Mac wanting to have their dream of opening a franchise to come true. Despite the fact that Kroc isn’t extremely trustworthy, it’s easy to see how and why people would get involved with him.
The other theme of the movie, other than “don’t sell your successful franchise to a milkshake mixer salesman who approaches you on the street” is one of persistence. The theme of persistence comes up frequently in the movie, from an old motivational record that Kroc listens to early on, to the story of how McDonald’s came to be McDonald’s, to the story that Kroc will repeat later. It’s interesting to see how the filmmakers put this theme of persistence up against Kroc’s need to cut corners and desire to get things quickly.
If the movie has one failing, it’s that it doesn’t spend much time with the McDonald Brothers while all of this is happening. Obviously the story is about Kroc and his “Founding” of the McDonald’s Corporation, but it would have been interesting to see more from their perspective. Of course, you could also argue that this was highly intentional, as they were spectators in their own franchise going global.
It’s an interesting story, a lot more interesting that you might think from a place that is so ubiquitous; it fades into the American landscape.
Of course… that was the point.