Director: John Lee Hancock
Screenwriter: Robert D. Siegel
Cast: Michael Keaton, Nick Offerman, John Carroll Lynch, Linda Cardellini, Patrick Wilson, B.J. Novak, Laura Dern
Distributor: The Weinstein Company
Rated PG-13 | 115 Minutes
Release Date: January 20, 2017
McDonald’s is about as American as apple pie, and they serve apple pie, so it goes full circle. But like any good organization, there is a history behind it. So in John Lee Hancock‘s The Founder, this is the history of how Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton) turned himself from a small town milkshake salesman into the multi-million dollar owner of McDonald’s. But this is no ordinary story of a nobody turning himself into something than just a somebody, it is a story of how Kroc did it, which consisted of backdoor deals and underhanded tactics that ripped a beloved restaurant from two humble brothers. Check out my full review of the film below.
The Founder is based on the true story of Ray Kroc, a salesman going from town to town in hopes of selling his latest product, a milkshake machine. Time and time again he runs into drive-ins that aren’t interested in his product, until he catches a break from two humble brothers who order six of his machines. The disbeliever travels all the way to Barstow, California, where he meets the McDonald brothers — hard-working Maurice “Mac” McDonald (John Carroll Lynch) and the intuitive Richard “Dick” McDonald (Nick Offerman) — who show him their quick cooking system that gives their customers their orders in 30 seconds or less.
Surprised at how efficient their system works as opposed to the drive-ins of the mid-west, Kroc suggests that they franchise their work across the country. At first, they are hesitant, but with some salesman pitch convincing, Kroc is able to get them to agree, and from there, the story of how McDonald’s came to be is born. While the McDonald brothers believed they could trust in Kroc, it is the saleman’s ambition to grow faster that has them worried.
Robert D. Sigel‘s script takes a salesman approach to the audience to pitch the story. And in a way it works. Just like any good salesman, the film tries to sell you something you don’t want. Of course, the pitch sounds so wonderful that even if you don’t want it, you end up buying it. It’s about achieving the American dream, and he tells stories about what the American life can be like with a McDonald’s location in their city.
Keaton’s take on Kroc is absolutely engaging and has you hooked. Even though Kroc is on his way to success, it doesn’t seem enough for him, he wants more. And the choices he makes to achieve that goal are morally reprehensible. Or are they?
The film never makes that decision; instead, it has audiences teetering back and forth from rooting for Kroc to get want he wants to ridiculing him for making unethical maneuvers to steal away the McDonald name from the brothers. Hancock’s The Blind Side and Saving Mr. Banks were all feel-good movies with protagonists we had no problem cheering for. But in The Founder, it’s not as easy as that. On one hand, you’ve got the self-made man part, which is a great story that people can attach to very easily because it usually has the very relatable protagonist. However, it is how Kroc goes about becoming one of the richest men in the world that is questionable.
The business practices seen in The Founder are glossed over, with the idea that Kroc should be buying the land on which McDonald’s is built, not the building itself being explained, but things like handshake deals are never fully detailed. However, the film wants to make sure that Kroc’s business skills come across as clearly as possible. When the franchising begins and he starts to see other locations stray away from the business model he saw in Barstow, he makes sure that the managers and owners are doing it wrong. So he reworks the process by getting people he knows and can trust as opposed to third-party business owners who just want to take the name and make McDonald’s their own.
Soon more obstacles stand in Kroc’s way. He isn’t making enough capital, or he requests to rework his contract with the McDonald brothers. When they refuse, he persistently looks for loopholes to find a way to make more money. So has chance would have it, he meets a real estate investor (B.J. Novak) who tells him he should buy the land on which the property is built on. Such a move would position him to have more power and limit the brothers. Soon enough, he starts to change the business while still maintaining its success. So when it comes down to it, it’s Kroc’s persistence that fuels his ambition and the film.
As great as Keaton, Lynch, and Offerman’s performances are, the film does lose sight of its great franchising potential by adding in love interests, and I use that term very loosely. Laura Dern, as great as she is, seems wasted as Kroc’s first wife, who doesn’t quite share her husband’s ambitions of wanting more from this great opportunity. Complacency doesn’t compute for Kroc and her dinners at the supper club seem to annoy him. The two lack chemistry, and it clearly shows. But even if that was the intention, it does take away from the film itself. As does Kroc pining over Joan Smith (Linda Cardellini), who happens to be married to one of Kroc’s business partners, Rollie Smith (Patrick Wilson). Despite that, the film gets back on the rails by focusing on Kroc’s path to claim the Golden Arches.
What The Founder succeeds in is asking ourselves if we would make the same decisions Kroc made should the opportunity arise. Are we supposed to criticize Kroc for being a successful businessman or are we supposed to chastise him for making underhanded deals? While it may be tough to decide, the film shows us what the results could be if we are persistent. It is a lesson in franchising and expansion. And what it is like to wield the power of having a silver tongue and being able to deliver a slick sales pitch.
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