Editor’s Notes: The Founder will be out on in its respective home video format April 18th.
The Founder (Lionsgate) is the story of how Illinois milkshake machine salesman Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton) turned a hamburger stand into the global fast-food giant McDonald’s.
In the course of his business, Kroc meets brothers Mac and Dick McDonald (John Carroll Lynch, Nick Offerman), where they sell burgers, fries, and shakes in 1950s Southern California. Kroc is impressed with their “Speedee Service System” of making and serving the food and recognizes franchise potential. He makes a deal with the brothers that sees McDonalds restaurants springing up all over the country. However, as the company grows, conflict develops between the brothers and Kroc about expansion, marketing, and the nature of products served in the restaurants.
The premise of The Founder is intriguing because of the ubiquitous nature of McDonalds worldwide. Most people know the name Ray Kroc, but the fascinating details about how he eventually became the face of McDonalds make for a textbook case of capitalistic drive, the American Dream, and the beginning of what we now call the fast food industry.
Director John Lee Hancock sets the stage by illustrating what burger stands were like pre-McDonalds. Cars pulled up and car hops came over to take orders. After a long wait, the food finally arrived, often cold. The stands were often hangouts for teenagers, with jukeboxes blaring and garbage strewn about. The McDonalds eliminated car hops and introduced the walk-up window, streamlined their menu, and wrapped the food in paper so there would be no need for plates and utensils.
The McDonalds are depicted as successful businessmen who don’t see the potential of what they’ve created. So the title is a conundrum — are the brothers the founder of the idea that led to incredible growth, or is Kroc the founder because of his vision for what McDonalds could become?
Keaton plays Kroc with determination, shark-like predation, and motivational resolve. Kroc is a salesman, after all, and this is his greatest asset. His plan is to sell his vision first to the brothers, then to the banks, the franchisees and, of course, the public — a public who had never encountered this revolutionary kind of burger operation.
The women in Kroc’s life are played by Laura Dern (as Ethel, his first wife) and Linda Cardellini (as Joan Smith, his third wife). Second wife Jane Dobbins Green is never mentioned. Ethel is a homebody who wants an ordinary life with her country club friends. She doesn’t share the drive that consumes Ray. In Joan, he finds a soulmate who equals his own ambition and determination. While Ethel is a traditional mid-20th century woman, Joan is forward-thinking and recognizes that Ray’s vision is bigger than both of them. She encourages rather than holds him back.
As the brothers, Offerman and Lynch are excellent. They’re portrayed as intelligent businessmen and treated respectfully by the script rather than as country-bumpkin caricatures. They are a worthy match for Kroc and insist on an iron-clad contract giving them total control of what is served and how it is served in the restaurants.
This is where the film turns darker. Kroc sees opportunities, both legal and otherwise, to insinuate himself further into the company. It’s at this stage that he and the brothers become adversaries. Keaton shows a cut-throat quality to Kroc, complete with nastiness and condescension, that he hasn’t exhibited before. The ultimate portrait of the man is a mix. Either you regard him as a shrewd businessman who built a successful San Bernadino burger stand into the most successful restaurant chain in the world, or a sharp salesman who saw unlimited dollars and determined to claim them for himself.
In either case, The Founder, rated PG-13, is a “based on a true story” film that takes some liberties for dramatic effect but covers the key events in the building of a fast-food empire.
Bonus features on the 2-disc Blu-ray + DVD release include a press conference with filmmakers and cast, and the featurettes “The Story Behind the Story,” “Keaton as Ray Croc,” “The MacDonald Brother,” “The Production Design,” and “Building MacDonalds Time Lapse Video.” A digital HD copy is included.