Do you like food? Do you like movies? Do you like movies about food? If you answered yes to any of those questions, you might enjoy Eater at the Movies, a column by Joshua David Stein.
Since McDonald’s is like air — universally consumed, life-giving, death-dealing, inescapable — to attempt to capture its origins in representational art has a faint whiff of hubris. Air is air and has always been there. Ditto the Big Mac, which was born on the back of a Big Mac on top of a Big Mac on top of a Big Mac and so on and so forth.
Nonetheless, The Founder, which opens nationally today, attempts to tell the origin story of the fast food chain that has come to embody the western world in just under two hours. It is the Pentateuch of fast food, capturing the genesis of the Speedee Service System in a little restaurant in San Bernardino, CA, and the eventual franchise expansion until McDonald’s were as numerous as the stars in the sky. It’s also the story of betrayal and avarice.
The titular founder, Ray Kroc, is both the Creator and the Antichrist of this morality tale. Kroc, late-period arroyo-faced Michael Keaton, didn’t exactly invent McDonald’s as much as he saw within it transformational potential and worked to unleash it on a global scale. In the process, as the film depicts, he heartlessly exploits and ultimately crushes the filigree souls of Dick and Mac McDonald, the brothers who initially founded the franchise way back in 1940. The rise of Kroc and the concomitant marginalization of the brothers McDonald is the main narrative movement of The Founder. This is accompanied by the bittersweet transformation of the McDonald’s that was to the McDonald’s that is. It’s hard to stray too far into metaphorical waters here — since McDonald’s is itself a metaphor for capitalism — but the deeper shift at the splenetic heart of the film is the obliteration of the person by corporation. In this way, The Founder is the story of America.
The writer of film is Robert Siegel whose earlier film The Wrestler is a dark, painful and raw exploration of a man in decline. The director is John Lee Hancock, whose all-American name is reflected in his feel-good blockbuster oeuvre, including The Blind Side and the lush Disney biopic Saving Mr. Banks. They make an odd but bluntly effective couple. The power of The Founder as a work of art — and it is immensely powerful — lies in the tension between Siegel’s grim story and the peppy visual palette and carefree pacing of Hancock’s direction.
The film is divided into two loose acts. The first, which is irritating, is a zippy story of a hero’s uplift. In it, we see Kroc lugging around a milkshake machine to drive-ins in the South in ever lower rungs of Lomaxian misery. Doors slam on his face as he repeats his spiel — a basic inversion of supply and demand a la Field of Dreams — like a catechism. It doesn’t go over well and Kroc is demoralized. He is our hero and we see him laid low. As viewers, we are eager to see him arisen.
Shocked when a hamburger outfit in San Bernardino, CA, orders eight of the six-stem machines, he drives out to see what kind of place could be doing so gangbusters. There he meets the brothers McDonald, Dick, played by beardless Nick Offerman, and Mac, played by John Carroll Lynch, one of the best character actors of all time. (Beardless Nick Offerman, it turns out, is actually a poor man’s Dwight Schrute.) Dick is the brains of the operation and Mac is the heart, but both clearly have soul. It is Dick who devised the Henry Ford-inspired Speedee Service System, meant to economize human motion and turn the creation of a cheeseburger into hard-to-fuck-up low-skilled labor.
After waiting eons for milkshakes at drive-ins, Kroc immediately sees the genius of the system and offers them the chance to franchise their operation. (In reality they already had a number of franchise locations by the time Kroc appeared.) Dick negotiates a contract to which Kroc readily accedes. He’s then granted a percentage of franchisee profits (the brothers much more) and must gain approval for all operational changes from them. And he’s off to the races, recruiting franchisees from VFW Halls to the Independent Order of Oddfellows and mortgaging his house to allow for more rapid expansion.
Things are going well but in relatively no time, Kroc reveals himself to be a ruthless businessman as well as a pretty terrible person. This unveiling constitutes the much more enjoyable second half. It also somewhat explains why the first half was so hagiographic and golden. The fall feels farther if the Eden is lush. Soon Kroc begins to chafe at the brothers’ commitment to quality at the expense of profit. Milkshakes made with ice cream, for instance, are much more expensive to produce than milkshakes made with powder. He wants the latter; the McDonald’s want the former. Chaos ensues.
Kroc begins to buy the land on which the franchisees operate thereby liberating himself from the approval process. (I’m not 100 percent sure on why buying the land underneath the franchise bypasses the contractually obligated approval process for quality control within the establishment, but okay.) Eventually he buys the brothers out for $2.7 million dollars and a “handshake” deal to receive 1 percent of profits in perpetuity. The latter, they never collect.
Kroc is no less immoral in his home life. Shortly after he enjoys some success, he leaves his long suffering wife Ethel (Laura Dern), to pursue the ambitious, if married Joan (Linda Cardellini), the wife of a franchisee. Of the many business sins he commits throughout the film, I found the abandonment of his wife and the simultaneous seduction of Joan to be the most painful, in no small part because of the finely wrought performances of Dern as Mrs. Kroc and Patrick Wilson as Rawland Smith, Joan’s jilted husband. Throughout, Kroc drinks like a fish, acts like boor, shouts over others, lies, obfuscates, and mansplains. In real life, he was often violent. In short, he’s a terrible husband and a worse man.
Eventually, as any one of us can attest, Kroc’s vision for McDonald’s as a global hegemon triumphs and the brothers are remanded to the loser locker of history. The film ends — The Big Short-style — with Kroc preparing to deliver a speech to California Governor Ronald Reagan and the brothers McDonald broken. It is, in short, a sad story that leads right to our doors.
What are we meant to take from this rosy but subversive film in which a Machiavellian blowhard with immense fortunes and an even more insatiable ego seems the victor? What can it mean when a leader who believes in the power of positive thinking over the power of truth becomes a one-man global force? Must we give up hope now that the ruthless pursuit of the mighty dollar seems destined to decimate all the soft matter — souls, integrity, kindness — in its way?
No. The Founder is a fine film but it’s also a call to look closer. It seems to say that if you examine a toxic business close enough, you’ll find a toxic businessman behind it. And this idea — that corporate malfeasance is made up of molecules of personal malfeasance — is a powerful if painful reality. The Founder is the timeliest of films, an admonition to be seduced neither by bread and circuses nor fries and Big Macs.
Rating: Four stars out of five
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