There’s a scene in “The Founder” where Michael Keaton as Ray Kroc is preparing for a speech and when describing his success, he says “Only in America.”
His is a true American success story, as Kroc grew McDonald’s into a national corporate powerhouse and ushered in an entire industry we now simply take for granted.
“The Founder” chronicles Kroc’s rise from a scuffling, middle-aged salesman into a titan of industry, in a well-made, matter-of-fact film that somehow manages to be simultaneously inspirational and disheartening.
When we meet Kroc, he’s in his early 50s hocking milkshake mixers, making a modest living, and has come to a point in his life where he’s left behind more than his share of broken dreams and schemes. His patient wife Ethel (Laura Dern) just wants him to settle and stay home more, a prospect Kroc refuses to entertain because, like a shark, he has to keep swimming or he’ll die.
One day while on the road, he receives what he considers an impossible order of six milkshake mixers and he’s so intrigued he drives halfway across the country to San Bernardino, Calif., to see what kind of operation could possibly be so successful.
That’s where he finds the McDonald brothers, Dick (Nick Offerman) and Mac (John Carroll Lynch). Their hamburger stand is wildly successful and a model of efficiency with customers receiving their orders almost immediately after placing them.
Kroc sees dollar signs in franchising potential, but the brothers aren’t so sure. How can you maintain standards and consistency across the country? Kroc refuses to back down and the brothers cautiously agree to let Kroc handle the franchising.
There are fits and starts along the way, but once Kroc gets the taste of success in his mouth, he assumes a take-no-prisoners approach to business and he lets literally no one stand in his way.
Keaton delivers a terrific performance and carries the movie from beginning to end. He’s got the charisma required for the role and he also plays Kroc with his characteristic live-wire energy and a hunger for success that borders on desperation.
Director John Lee Hancock (“The Blind Side”) and writer Robert Siegel (“The Wrestler”) do an admirable job of not passing judgment one way or the other on their subject. How you feel about Kroc at the end of the movie likely reflects how you feel about American capitalism.
For most of us, it’s a mixed bag. On one hand, he’s the hero, a man with a vision and the sheer will to usher in the era of fast food and have a deep impact on our society and our stomachs.
On the other hand, he’s a villain who used whatever cutthroat means he could to get ahead and didn’t care who he stepped on to get there.
This dichotomy is what makes for great drama and for a terrific movie. “The Founder” shows us why so few people are able or willing to make it big in this world and to be impressed, for better or worse, by those who have.
“The Founder” is rated PG-13 for brief strong language.