This is the McMovie you’ve been waiting to see. Love it or hate it, almost everyone has a fascination about the fast food industry in general and McDonald’s in particular. As well documented in Eric Schlosser’s book (2001) and movie (2006), “Fast Food Nation,” post WWII Southern California was the hotbed of the entire booming industry.
Michael Keaton stars as Ray Kroc, infamous “founder” of one of the most revolutionary franchises in the history of corporate America. “Mickie Dee’s” not only changed the way we eat, but led a cultural revolution that an increasingly mobile nation demanded. This is a compelling look at how a small burger stand evolved into a massive global empire.
The story begins in 1954 with a struggling milk shaker salesman offering his wares to drive-up restaurants with carhop window service with long waits. The 52 year-old, folksy pitchman is on a path to becoming the next Willy Loman, from Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman.” When Kroc hears about an emerging eatery in San Bernardino, he points his old Plymouth West on Route 66 to discover an innovative method of culinary service.
The brothers Maurice (Mac) and Richard (Dick) McDonald (Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch) explain the methodical approach they developed and perfected to create the most efficiently choreographed food delivery system. The secret sauce is a minimized menu for this gastronomic assembly line that eliminates any wasted motions. The meal is produced at half the cost and delivered in seconds rather than minutes.
Kroc is astounded and decides he must be part of this revolutionary business. Initially, the brothers resist, but eventually write an “ironclad” contract to ensure Kroc’s franchises adhere to the McDonald’s standards and their full control. The resourceful Keaton captures the downtrodden spirit of a hard working “loser” who maintains a reservoir of hope and twinkle in his eye for the possibility of the next big deal.
Laura Dern plays Kroc’s disheartened and long-suffering wife. As Kroc is all consumed with achieving his dream, he has little interest in a home life that is not much more than a distraction to him. Eventually, he fesses up and asks for a divorce. He eagerly relinquishes their home and car but none of his newly developed business interests.
In this optimistic period piece, director John Lee Hancock (“The Blind Side”) effectively transports the audience back to a post-WWII America. He supersizes the minute details of this compelling docudrama so we understand how after 30 years, the McDonald brothers and Kroc became overnight successes. Then, how Kroc initially struggled with his newly discovered business as much as he did with shake mixers.
Early franchisees were executives not so interested in standards or quality. So, Kroc shifts his target clients to peddlers and working stiffs who understand hard work and appreciate opportunity. The McDonald brothers are less motivated by ambition and rapid growth. The tension mounts and Kroc ultimately drives them out of their own business.
Keaton’s mischievous grin depicts the original “Hamburglar,” who developed his own all-you-can-eat recipe of innovation, perseverance and greed that floored the culinary world. In this tasty morality play, Kroc lost his integrity along the way, or probably just sold it early on. This living satire on the American dream is equally inspiring and disturbing.
“The Founder” is 115 minutes and rated PG-13 for brief strong language. When Kroc died in 1984, he had 7,500 franchises in 31 countries generating $8 billion per year. The longest standing store from 1953 (before Kroc), complete with the original Golden Arches, is still open and serving on Florence Avenue in nearby Downey.
Kroc didn’t develop the McDonald’s formula, but Steve Jobs didn’t invent the personal computer and Henry Ford didn’t invent the automobile or assembly line. Without Kroc, the extent of the McDonald’s empire might still be at the corner of 14th and E Streets in San Bernardino. In 1961, the brothers sold their company to Kroc for a million dollars each (after taxes). Wonder if Kroc then asked, “Would you like fries with that?”