The premise of The Founder is initially confusing, and that confusion is part of the story—this is not a film about the man who started McDonald’s, but the man who franchised it. It’s the story of the reason why we’re more likely to associate the name Ray Kroc with McDonald’s than it’s actual founders, brothers Mac and Dick MdDonald.
Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton) is an ambitious but mostly unsuccessful salesman, who’s currently traveling diner to diner trying to sell automatic milkshake machines. Despite his relentless attempts, no one’s buying, a fact he refrains from revealing to his wife (Laura Dern). But when his secretary reports that he’s received an order from somewhere called San Bernadino for six milkshake machines, he’s sure it’s a mistake. He traces his finger west along Route 66 to see where this place is, and, acting on gut instinct alone, decides to drive to California to see who could possibly need six machines when no one else needs even one.
What he finds on the other end of the milkshake order are the McDonald brothers, who have spent the last few years fine-tuning the drive-in concept and ended up inventing fast food as we know it. Ray is more than just impressed; he’s in awe, he’s inspired, and he’s covetous. Just like King David in the Bible with the beautiful Bathsheba, he says after seeing the iconic golden arches, “I saw it and I knew I had to have it.” Mostly, he can’t understand why they haven’t expanded. Past attempts have the brothers worried about quality control, but Ray convinces them that he has the vision to expand successfully. Though he must mortgage his home to do so, he succeeds in buying a piece of land to break ground on the first McDonald’s in Illinois. It’s not a spoiler to say he ends up wildly successful; otherwise there’d be no movie. What is surprising is how Ray changes along the way, and what happens as a result of his success.
For a movie that’s essentially about real estate in the fast food business, The Founder is unexpectedly entertaining. The look of the film is retro almost to the point of kitsch; the extras who make up the crowds outside McDonald’s look like the quirky, wholesome characters from a Norman Rockwell painting. This pastiche of 50’s nostalgia helps solidify the impression that this is a heartwarming film about a man pursuing the American Dream, and thus, when the narrative takes a darker turn, the audience feels the same betrayal as the characters.
Michael Keaton perfectly embodies Ray, who he portrays as a compelling mix of desperation, bravado, and unpredictability. In Birdman, he reminded audiences that he’s a master of physicality, and he’s able to showcase this talent with a little more subtlety here. He moves in agitated, explosive bursts, as if Ray’s ambition is a live substance itching to escape his body. His antics may be over the top, but he’s not one-dimensional. Keaton’s Ray is a combustible mixture of boyish excitement and cutthroat determination, and he believably evolves from a down-on-his luck everyman to a compassionless, calculating opportunist.
John Caroll Lynch and Nick Offerman play stoic brothers (and Ray’s foils) Dick and Mac McDonald; they match Ray’s jittery loquaciousness with a deadpan practicality that’s more earnest than cynical. The brothers have wonderful chemistry, and are responsible for most of the film’s humor—they finish each other’s sentence almost rhythmically, and hearing them tell a story is like watching two people volley a tennis ball. Part of what initially captivates Ray’s imagination is their retelling of how they got to where they are now. In a particularly memorable scene, we see them trace the potential layout of the kitchen in chalk on a tennis court, making tweaks as their cooks practice the fast-paced choreography necessary to create the desired “symphony of efficiency.” Ray is rapt and understandably impressed.The quick cuts between the past and present make these exposition scenes more fascinating than one would expect; showing Ray’s excitement as he hears about their processes is contagious, and I wound up in as much awe as he was.
The Founder would be a good film if it stopped here, having already accomplished the difficult feat of rendering a little known piece of pop-history intriguing. But that would be more or less a Wikipedia article brought to life, and director John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side) and writer Robert D. Siegel (The Wrestler) are after more. What they’ve managed to achieve with The Founder is one of the most relevant examinations of “America”—as a place, a people, and a brand—I’ve experienced this season. Ray Kroc was able to make McDonald’s so successful because he knew what America valued, and he gave it to them. “What does every small town have?” he asks the brothers. “A courthouse and a church…the flag and the cross. The church is where they share the values protected by the American flag. McDonald’s can be the new American church…and it ain’t just open on Sundays, boys.” While the values themselves aren’t sinister, Kroc’s willingness to monetize them is, especially because he does it at the expense of the McDonald’s brothers, who are made of the same midwestern traditionalism as the people he claims to be serving.
Unfortunately, it’s not just the fast-food industry that values speed over quality, nor is it just Ray Kroc who’s willing to put profit over ethics. The United States continues to struggle with the ongoing consequences resulting from its own history of chasing progress at the expense of the stewardship of its land and people. Everything from slavery to native genocide to global climate change could be used as examples of this. Though some of America’s ills are more egregious than others, it’s easy to find examples of unchecked ambition run amok. The pursuit of the American Dream is a little less laudable if it’s been snatched from the hands of another.
One of The Founder’s greatest strengths is that it refuses to make any overt judgements about Ray’s decisions. While I certainly felt a lot of sympathy for the McDonald brothers, I couldn’t help but admire Ray’s tenacity and foresight. As the motivational record he listens to on repeat informs him, “Talent…genius…education…these are not enough. Persistence alone will get you where you want to go.” It’d be easier to hate him if his success had come effortlessly, but it didn’t. He spent years as the laughing-stock of his blue-blood friends while trying to save face under the gentle scrutiny of his wife, as idea after idea after idea left him empty-handed. In a rare moment of vulnerability—just before he’s going to break ground on his first location—Ray fingers the dirt and whispers, “Be right…just be right one time.” It’s a brief but heartbreaking scene, one that reminded me of my own dad when he was out of work. Ray’s desperation here is due to his practical need for material security, certainly; but perhaps even more so, it’s due to the belief that his identity—the very dignity of his personhood—is somehow contingent on his worldly success.
Not since Alexander Payne’s Nebraska have I encountered a film that is so simultaneously sentimental and cynical. Both films seem to urge us to be our best and hope for the best, even as they warn that such behavior will not only go unrewarded, but likely be taken advantage of. What I felt when I leftThe Founder was unsettled. America, my America, has a history and a personality that is equal parts admirable and troubling, and we, its children, are the heirs of its legacy and the embodiment of these traits. Ours is the mantle of both pride and shame. As our—I’ll say controversial—45th president takes office today, these musings feel particularly urgent. With both nuance and humility, The Founder poses some tough questions, and now seems like a good time to follow suit.
Rachel Woldum is barista and bartender currently living in Minneapolis. An MFA in Creative Writing from Seattle Pacific University, Rachel also writes a TV column for Southern Minnesota Scene, and develops comic book scripts for Cartoon Studios.