I worked at McDonald’s as a teenager, and I still remember the training that went into learning the system — the way two people cooked the food, someone else prepared the buns with condiments, the special squirters for ketchup and mustard, someone else made the fries, someone else made the drinks, etc. I thought that was how all fast-food places worked, but I didn’t know the concept had been created by Dick and Mac McDonald, two brothers who created the Speedee Service system in 1954 at their restaurant in San Bernardino, California.
It was an efficient assembly-line approach that literally created the fast food industry by having items ready for customers within 30 seconds, and set the standard for how the business would work from then on. I also didn’t know that Ray Kroc, who called himself The Founder of the McDonald’s corporation, had screwed the McDonald brothers royally after convincing them to let him franchise the business.
In the movie, we meet Kroc in St. Louis as a traveling salesman, trying to convince drive-in burger joints and diners to buy the milkshake mixers he was pushing, not very successfully. They didn’t want his multi-mixers, which could make five shakes at a time, but then his office said that a restaurant in San Bernardino had ordered six of them. He couldn’t believe it, so he drove to California to see what the owners, the McDonalds, were doing — and supposedly saw the future.
Kroc is played by Michael Keaton, who is so good at playing a guy down on his luck (on the verge of bankruptcy) who recognizes an opportunity and then turns on the people he’s supposed to be helping. He’s on screen almost every second of “The Founder” and is riveting, giving Kroc a charming veneer even when he is very unlikable. Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch are perfect as the McDonald brothers who readily welcome Kroc into their restaurant and show him their system — a decision they will come to regret. Laura Dern plays Ethel, who was caught in a loveless marriage with Ray, and Linda Cardellini plays Joan, who he falls for and eventually marries (there’s no mention of Kroc’s second wife, Jane).
Director John Lee Hancock made “The Blind Side” and “Saving Mr. Banks,” so he knows how to make bio-pics about bigger-than-life characters. Here he takes Kroc, who launched one of the most successful companies in the world, and shows that there’s more to his story than the shiny, polished image McDonald’s wants you to believe.
I give “The Founder” an 8 out of 10.