The Founder

November 24, 2016
Michael Keaton in The Founder (2016)
Michael Keaton in The Founder (2016)

There are characters that can’t be made sympathetic no matter how many hardships they endure. One such is Ray Kroc, the “founder” of the McDonalds fast-food empire. In almost any other film we would warm to this story of a 50-something battler who succeeds in making it big through his commitment to unstinting hard work and unshakeable self-belief. In any other film we would recognise Ray as a visionary who overcomes the odds and realises his dream – a man whose actions transform the lives of millions and revolutionises an entire industry.

Just as the strings and trumpets are ready to roll we take a second look at the nature of Ray’s achievement. He may have transformed himself from beggar into billionaire, but he created a juggernaut that would have a disastrous impact on the kind of food Americans – and then the rest of the world – love to eat. Cheap, addictive, high in fat, sugar and salt, McDonalds in its heyday helped foster an epidemic of obesity. Its labour policies exploited teenage workers, and had a knock-on effect in the American meatpacking and farming sectors. The fries were flavoured with beef, and the burgers were made of reconstituted bits of meat, meaning that an average Big Mac might contain remnants of a hundred different cows. Worst of all, they unleashed a repulsive clown on the world, who became more recognisable than Mickey Mouse.

I don’t need to list the sins of McDonalds, it’s been done in Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation (2002), a book that keeps being reissued. One has to read Schlosser to pick up the McDonalds story at the point where John Lee Hancock’s movie leaves off.

Michael Keaton is being touted as an Oscar candidate for his portrayal of Ray Kroc, but there is something so repellant about his personality that it will probably discourage votes.

The story begins in the late 1950s with Kroc working as a travelling salesman, hawking milkshake machines around small diners and drive-ins. It’s a mug’s game, in which he rarely seems to make a sale. He keeps himself going with motivational LPs played in hotel rooms, and lousy meals from the drive-ins.

The game-changer is an order for six milkshake machines from a restaurant called McDonalds in San Bernadino, California. He rings up to check this is for real, only to be told, “Yeah, better make it eight.”

He drives to San Bernadino and meets the brothers, Dick and ‘Mac’ McDonald (Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch) who have come up with a revolutionary approach to fast food. In place of the crowded, inefficient drive-ins, they have invented the Speedee Service model, whereby people walk up to a counter and collect their order straight away. For Ray, this is like being vouchsafed a vision of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The McDonalds take him on a tour of the kitchen explaining their time-and-motion strategies, largely borrowed from Henry Ford.

Home in Iowa, Ray can’t stop thinking about the restaurant. His long-suffering wife, Ethel (Laura Dern), feels like she’s heard it all before. She thinks only of consolidating what they already have, and has no time for her husband’s get-rich-quick schemes.

This is not palatable for Ray, who has had a religious conversion. He envisages McDonalds as a new American “church”, with the golden arches logo taking its place alongside the Crucifix and the American flag. He drives back to San Bernadino and urges the brothers to franchise the concept. They say they’ve already tried that and were disenchanted by problems of maintaining quality control.

Ray won’t give up, and eventually they do a deal, albeit with a draconian contract that gives the brothers the right of veto over anything he suggests. This contract will become a major obstacle to Ray’s ambitions as he embarks on a campaign to talk up the brand and find disciples.

The bulk of the movie is a corporate Bildungsroman that follows Ray’s setbacks and breakthroughs, and introduces us to the key figures who will help him realise his plans. Foremost is Harry Sonneborn (B.J.Novak) who tells him: “You’re not in the hamburger business, you’re in the real estate business.” While scouting for McDonalds converts Ray even meets Joan (Linda Cardinelli), the new love of his life, who is no less business-minded than him.

As the pieces begin to fall into place one gets a slightly creepy feeling. We know where this revolution is heading. Always in the background are the McDonald brothers, who Ray begins to see as his mortal enemies – the anchor holding back a ship under full sail. The final resolution with Dick and Mac takes place at the end of the film, when Ray has built up formidable corporate momentum. It’s a moment of super-sized triumph and supreme grubbiness.

The Founder presents a version of the American Dream in which the need to succeed obliterates any other considerations; a story of bloody-minded determination, as a small, downtrodden businessman gets his revenge on the world. The rise of this empire is wondrous to behold but I can’t imagine anyone, except maybe Donald Trump, watching this movie with his kids and holding up Ray as a role model.

The Founder
Directed by John Lee Hancock
Written by Robert D. Siegel
Starring Michael Keaton, Linda Cardellini, Laura Dern, Nick Offerman, John Carroll Lynch, B.J.Novak,
USA, rated M, 115 mins 

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 26 November, 2016