There are few things in the world that symbolise America more potently than the golden arches of McDonald’s. With more than half the world’s nation’s homes to a store, the fast food chain and its imitators are now so ubiquitous that we take the world they helped create for granted.
John Lee Hancock’s new film The Founder shows a time when things were very different – when burgers did not come in disposable wrappers and milkshakes contained real ice cream. It also shows how McDonald’s ‘founder’ Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton) decided to transform the way we eat.
Despite the film’s title and the myth he later promoted, Kroc did not found McDonald’s. As its name suggests the restaurant chain was founded by the McDonald brothers, Dick (Nick Offerman) and Maurice (John Carroll Lynch).
Dick and Maurice devised McDonald’s patented Speedee cooking system, a revolutionary concept in 1950s America, where even drive-thru waitresses had to dodge handsy Brylcreemed teens to deliver your order. Instead, the brothers devise, with the help of a tennis court and some chalk, a cooking method that maximises efficiency and consistency.
The movie is about the tension between the brothers’ vision and Kroc’s. Kroc, a travelling salesman dreaming of the idea that will turn him from a wheeler dealer into a mogul, happens upon the brothers’ California restaurant when they make a bumper order of the milkshake machines he is selling. He quickly realises its potential for expansion and negotiates a deal whereby he can run an operation franchising McDonald’s restaurants.
The siblings however are comparatively unconcerned with cash. Dick, a fastidious eccentric, has designed McDonald’s in pursuit of perfection rather than profit. They inevitably butt heads over the direction of the business – as Kroc is determined to cut corners and expand, while the brothers’ primary concern is quality.
Keaton’s charisma and Hooker’s signature lightness of tone make for a more interesting film than might otherwise have been the case. Kroc, who turned McDonald’s into an American and then a global empire, was a ruthless and unpleasant individual. Yet salesmen and con artists require charm, which the actor provides. It’s easily forgotten now McDonald’s is the ruthless face of capitalism, but the company is also the definition of the American dream – a family business which has transformed the world.
While the story has deeper significance, it is a fascinating one its own right. Many moments you assume have been invented for dramatic effect are actually true, even if the timelines may be a bit wobbly.
In some ways, however, this is a story we have seen before. While the tale of McDonald’s rise is bizarre enough to feel fresh, Kroc’s personal entanglements are not. His ditching of his long suffering wife Ethel (Laura Dern) for a seductive and ambitious mistress Joan (Linda Cardellini) is predictable and, strangely, far less fascinating than the financial jiggery-pokery that turns Kroc from a chancer to a fast food demigod.
What keeps the show on the road though, is Keaton’s performance. As in Birdman his skill as a physical actor turns mundane moments into interesting ones, and keeps The Founder interesting even as it explores areas of the fast food business that is now a part of our every day lives.
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