THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
The story of how McDonalds became McDONALDS is enough to make you never want to eat at McDonalds again. It is a tale of ambition, ego, and outright deceit. The Founder tells it with a twist of humor, while still getting at some of the darker elements. Even if doesn't go dark enough, there's sufficient interest generated from seeing how one man hijacked – and took credit for – a business whose creation he had nothing to do with.
Michael Keaton plays Ray Kroc, a milkshake mixer salesman. After making a delivery to a small California drive-in restaurant, he is both stunned and impressed by what he sees. The owners, Dick and Mac McDonald (Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch), have streamlined the business with an assembly line process that makes food available immediately upon order. They also serve their food in the wrapping, eliminating the need for plates. Kroc convinces them to franchise their restaurant, with him hitting the road as a pitchman. But his liberal expansion ideas clash heavily with their more conservative “quality control” ethic, leading to significant conflict and, eventually, Kroc pushing the brothers out once McDonalds becomes a big deal.
The early scenes in The Founder are played for laughs, as Kroc comically frustrates Dick and Mac with his exuberance. They recognize that a key part of their success is adhering to the formula that's worked so well for them. Kroc, on the other hand, wants to cut a few corners – like using a powdered milkshake mix instead of real ice cream – to keep overhead low. Later scenes more seriously explore the real conflict between the men, as the outsider begins to exert increased control over the business, even using some underhanded means to gain leverage.
Michael Keaton is terrific as Kroc. He's always had skill at playing smooth-talking characters (see also Gung Ho). In this role, he combines that with a sense of optimism that grows dark. Kroc starts off seeing an exciting opportunity. Once he meets hardcore resistance from the brothers, that optimism yields to aggression. Expanding McDonalds is such a great idea that he fights for his vision of what it could be, regardless of whether that meshes with the vision of its actual creators. Keaton expertly shows how the character's obsession magnifies.
In fairness, The Founder could have been even more precise in depicting how Kroc went from opportunistic hustler to ethics-free SOB. Director John Lee Hancock (Saving Mr. Banks) essentially wants to make a feel-good movie where you don't think too negatively about anyone. The screenplay by Robert Siegel (The Wrestler) also tries to maintain respect for characters on both sides of the issue. While that's entirely appropriate – McDonalds wouldn't be what it is without the contributions of all three men – it perhaps slightly shortchanges the sort of duplicity that certainly drove Kroc's actions.
Making up for that is The Founder's look at the birth of a phenomenon. Whether you eat at McDonalds or not, there's no doubt that its worldwide ubiquity is impressive. Walk into one in Paris and the food will taste just the same as if you walked into one in Toledo. The chain revolutionized the food service industry, a fact the movie shows step-by-step. As a case study of the growing pains behind the creation of a global success, it works in most entertaining fashion.
Lynch and Offerman provide strong supporting work as the McDonalds brothers, as does Laura Dern as Kroc's wife, who feels herself gradually being superseded by the restaurant in her husband's eyes. Together, they help create an engaging portrait of a man who saw something fresh and new, thought he could make it even better, and succeeded, at the cost of alienating just about every significant person in his life.
Was it worth it? Kroc, who died a very wealthy man, would probably say yes. You might say differently. This funny, insightful film lets you make up your own mind.
( out of four)
The Founder is rated PG-13 for brief strong language. The running time is 1 hour and 55 minutes.
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