How did a small restaurant become one of the biggest chains in America?  When does ambition turn into betrayal?  And how does it all relate to the American dream?  The Founder explores all of these, in its based-on-a-true-story look at the man who was largely behind the success of McDonald's.

The movie begins in 1954 with Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton), a 52-year-old dreamer whose get-rich-quick ideas have largely led nowhere and who's on the road all the time selling milkshake machines.  His life is also stressful on his wife Ethel (Laura Dern), who wishes he'd stay home with her.

A large machine order piques Ray's interest, leading him to drive out to California, where he finds a restaurant called McDonald's -- which brings people their food orders in under a minute, instead of the 20-30 minutes of other places.  Ray meets with the restaurant's founders -- brothers Dick McDonald (Nick Offerman) and Mac McDonald (John Carroll Lynch) -- who have an almost scientific method to making good food and getting it out quickly.  Ray sees a huge opportunity, and he talks the brothers into letting him franchise the restaurant -- despite their previous failed attempt to franchise and concerns about maintaining their standards.  A contract seems to take care of the latter issue.
What follows is a combination of growth and conflict.  Ray focuses on expanding and franchising McDonald's stores throughout America as a family-friendly place, while the McDonald's brothers fight with him on maintaining the standards.  (A running joke are the abrupt hang-ups between the two sides during their discussions.)  Lawyer Harry Sonneborn (B.J. Novak) talks Ray into getting into real estate, buying land for the McDonald's to be built on and charging the franchise owners to use it.  And Ray is tempted by Joan Smith (Linda Cardellini), the beautiful wife of a franchise owner with some great business ideas of her own.
The Founder is a very interesting look at capitalism: its promise and its ruthlessness.  Michael Keaton makes Roy Kroc into both hero and villain: Kroc has a never-give-up attitude and plenty of persistence -- but he also has success go to his head, Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch are fine actors giving terrific performances as the brothers who are content with what they have but find themselves outmatched by their new partner's ambition.  The story has plenty of drama and plenty of humor -- and no easy answers on who's right and who's wrong.  The Founder is a thoughtful, dramatic, and amusing take on one of the great business successes of the 20th century.

Overall grade: A-
Reviewed by James Lynch
(who still eats at McDonald's)

No comments: