Kurt Loder Movie Reviews

Movie Review: The Founder

Michael Keaton in a McDonald's burger biopic.

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McDonalds
Weinstein Company

As Ray Kroc, the not-exactly founder of the McDonald's hamburger empire, Michael Keaton gives off some of the mad-hustler sizzle of his old Beetlejuice character. We first meet Kroc in 1954, delivering staunch motivational clichés directly into the camera as he prepares to begin another day as a traveling salesman slogging around the Midwest peddling commercial milkshake machines that nobody seems to want to buy.

Kroc's life takes a fortuitous turn when he receives an order for not one, but six of these machines. Oddly, the order is from a little burger hut in San Bernardino, California, called McDonald's. It's run by two straight-arrow brothers, Mac and Dick McDonald (John Carroll Lynch and Nick Offerman), who, as Kroc soon discovers, are onto something. Driving straight out to Cali, he finds their tiny operation doing around-the-block business—and he immediately understands why.

Drive-in restaurants are already popular—places where people (especially teenagers) can park their cars in a slot, place an order with a roller-girl waitress, and then wait for their food to be brought. But the wait is usually long, and often wrongly assembled when it arrives. This is not the case at McDonald's. Here, customers walk inside to place their orders themselves, and then wait about 30 seconds for their grub to be handed over in a paper bag. This swift service is made possible by the McDonald brothers' assembly line approach to food delivery. They've eliminated all culinary distractions—no tacos, no fried chicken—and sell only three things: burgers, fries and drinks. They've built special automated machinery to squirt condiments on their buns—to be joined by exactly two pickle slices per burger—and have even choreographed the duties of their kitchen employees.

The sequence in which we see all of this burger knowledge being dropped is pure suburban Americana, with clean-cut moms and pops and cheerful offspring biting into their hamburgers with looks of swooning transport on their faces. It's all ripe for standard Hollywood mockery, but director John Lee Hancock (who also gave us the Walt Disney biopic Saving Mr. Banks) doesn't quite play it that way. We realize that the grownups we're seeing are people who've come through the Depression and then the war, and are now grateful to have a place they can go out to and share a meal without busting their modest budgets. (The McDonald brothers' burgers are priced at 15 cents each.)

Ray Kroc is knocked out. He tells the brothers their burger concept cries out to be franchised—and he's just the guy to help them take it nationwide. The McDonalds are skeptical. They've already made some attempts at franchising (one of their satellite operations over in Phoenix also incorporates a design element they call "the golden arches"), but quality control—about which they're obsessive—has proved to be a major problem. Kroc doesn't care what they've tried before. He signs a contract with the brothers to become their franchise master—although on a very short company leash.

The McDonald brothers are the heart of the movie. As Lynch and Offerman play them, they are the most guileless of entrepreneurs. They've come up with a great idea, but they're too cautious—and too committed to their high standards—to take it to another level. This makes them perfect prey for a hustler like Kroc—a man who's not without standards of his own, but is also a guy who's beginning to embrace his inner shark. (Before long he's handing out business cards that describe him as the company's founder.)

There's a compelling tension in the movie between Keaton, who's among the most likable and fascinating of actors, and the character he's playing, who's charming at the outset, but soon starts going dark. Kroc is a true believer in the wonders of capitalism (pitching prospective franchisees, he tells them, "Put your arms around the American dream"), but he has a tenuous allegiance to moral norms. He coldly casts aside his supportive wife (Laura Dern, given little to do but look glum) to take up with another man's spouse, a natural biz whiz named Joan (a luminous Linda Cardellini). And he has no reluctance at all about using a kind-of-brilliant real-estate strategy to try to pry the McDonald brothers out of their own business. ("Contracts are like hearts," he tells them. "They're made to be broken.")

By the end of the movie, the Ray Kroc depicted in Robert Siegel's script (this is one of those "based on a true story" pictures) seems to be an almost complete bastard. That we don't completely hate him is a tribute to Keaton. He's an actor who could probably sell us anything.

NEXT: The Media's Obama-Sycophancy and Disinterest in Robot Wars: The New Fifth Column

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  1. In your article you spell the guy’s name as both ‘Kroc and ‘Croc’. One of them has to be an error.

    1. He’s Schrodinger’s L(C)roc, stop being obsessed with the true/false binary and expand your mind, man.

    2. Good grief. Thanks…

  2. It’s a pity nobody has gotten Hollywood to do a “look at the dark underside of the foinding of” picture about Hollywood. Maybe is they focused their antiCapitalism obsession on their own business they would realize what a bunch of bastards they are.

    1. They know that they’re a bunch of bastards in their own business. That’s one reason why they’re so anti-capitalist; they believe all industries are just as bad as they are.

      1. Nonsense; they believe that all industry is bad, but that THEY are part of the Arts And Crafts movement.

    2. Sunset Boulevard?

    3. foinding

      I like it!

    4. Swimming with Sharks

  3. This is not the day to be late with the links, Reason!

    1. The peaceful transfer of lynx ….

  4. “The McDonald brothers are the heart of the movie. As Lynch and Offerman play them, they are the most guileless of entrepreneurs. They’ve come up with a great idea, but they’re too cautious?and too committed to their high standards?to take it to another level.”

    When looking at the value that entrepreneurs add to a business, you really need to understand the nature of entrepreneurship. The McDonald brothers failed in their franchising efforts before Kroc?

    Coming up with a concept is the easy part.

    Building an international brand is another matter. Step by step, day by day, that doesn’t happen accidentally, and if it Kroc’s decisions, strategies, and efforts turned McDonalds into an international brand, then whether he deserves credit for founding the company is beside the point. Hell, having a good personal story to sell can be good for business.

    Wozniak may have single-handedly invented the Apple I, developed the Apple II, etc., but it was what Jobs did that made Apple an international company. And Jobs also broke a lot of eggs to make that omelet. No reason to disregard the innovations of Wozniak or the McDonald brothers==they did what they did.

    But it wasn’t their entrepreneurship that made those companies into international brands. If it weren’t for entrepreneurs like Jobs and Kroc, Apple and McDonalds would be nothing. They built that.

    1. People always discount the value and work of Sales & Marketing…

    2. Very interesting post. Both the ideas men and the sales men have to be there for ultimate success. You seem to be putting more weight on the sales men than the ideas men, which I find interesting to think about.

      Are there famous examples of one man possessing both traits? There must be, but I don’t know of one off the top of my head.

      This also makes me think of Trump. He’s the sales guy. He is a Jobs or a Kroc. Who are his ideas guys?

        1. Hitler

      1. It isn’t just the salesmanship.

        The review mentions franchising and real estate, but then there’s finance and supply chain management, employee training and personnel–apparently the McDonald brothers were having trouble with quality control at other franchises.

        Inventing the airplane is an amazing accomplishment.

        Building one of the first successful commercial airlines is a different kind of accomplishment.

        The Wright brothers probably couldn’t have started and built TWA into an international brand. That doesn’t take away from the Wright brothers’ accomplishments, but the Wright brothers’ accomplishments don’t diminish the entrepreneurship accomplishments of the people who started and built TWA in the 1920s either.

        “Are there famous examples of one man possessing both traits?”

        Howard Hughes designed airplanes and started commercial airlines, but he didn’t invent the airplane. Thomas Edison invented things, but General Electric was also built on ideas taken from Tesla among others.

        Entrepreneurship is about combining resources–including labor and other people’s work. That isn’t a low accomplishment because it uses other people’s work–using other people’s work is entrepreneurship.

        It’s like film directing and script writing. Because a screenwriter wrote a great script doesn’t mean directors’ or actors’ are mere parasites. Directing and acting are different accomplishments.

        1. “Thomas Edison invented things, but General Electric was also built on ideas taken from Tesla among others.”

          Edison was involved in a scaremongering campaign to discredit alternating current electrical transmission in order to push his direct current transmission method. One of his publicity stunts was having a circus elephant killed by alternating current electrocution.

          He lost that battle and also lost control of his company. JP Morgan had bought stock in Edison’s company and he eventually took control of it and forced Edison out of the company that became General Electric.

          1. Point was that even the inventors we think of as entrepreneurs were doing something different when they were acting as entrepreneurs.

            The skills of entrepreneurship are not diminished because they don’t necessarily involve inventing something new and use other people’s ideas. If Edison failed at entrepreneurship, that doesn’t take away from his accomplishments as an inventor, and to whatever extent Edison succeeded as an entrepreneur, not having made Tesla’s discoveries doesn’t really take away from whatever success he had as an entrepreneur.

            If Edison didn’t make Tesla’s discoveries, then that speaks to Edison as a scientist and inventor–not as an entrepreneur.

          2. But Edison continued to do just fine for himself after losing GE.

        2. I agree with this completely.

  5. From the reviews I’ve read of this pic, it’s an expose of the American Dream. You know how everybody thinks the American Dream is to work hard and work smart and you can get ahead? FALSE. The American Dream is to screw everybody else over as hard as you can, to be as evil and greedy and ruthless as you possibly can, to rape and rob and kill, drink your enemy’s blood and revel in his death. And McDonald’s is the perfect example of how greedy corporations will cheerfully enslave their employees and poison their customers for a nickel. Ray Kroc. More like Ray Koch, amirite?

    So brave of the producers of this film to take on korporate Amerikkka this way, exposing the rot at the black, shriveled heart of capitalism. I’m sure I’ll gladly fork over 8 bucks to go see this steaming pile of propaganda 4 or 5 times.

    1. You didn’t build that.

    2. You didn’t build that.

      1. It is so pathetically transparent how all movies have to make the successful rich guy out to be a bastard.
        It’s bastard first; and he did build a cool business.

        In all my years, I’ve only met a handful of successful entrepreneurs who were complete dicks. Most capitalists are smart guys, don’t bother anyone else, and largely like to see other people be successful.

        “The Big Short” did the same thing. They wanted us to believe that the guys who were smart enough to see the crash coming and bet wisely were deeply remorseful for having made a trade that benefitted from the crash. Your job on the stock market is to make money, no matter what. It is perfectly legal and one should lauded for being so smart. Your job in business is to make profits. That’s it. Your job working for someone else is to help them make profits. Profits are the greatest thing for humanity ever.

        1. I agree completely. Successful entrepreneurs realize that surrounding yourself with talented people and delegating to them multiplies your own success. They value the contributions of others.

          1. Right. Some are more generous with pay than others but that is a personal reflection of thrift, or cheapness, or maybe they know what their investment is worth. That is not a reflection of entrepreneurism or capitalism.

            I doubt Ray Kroc went around the world conning people out of deals. I doubt Steve jobs paraded around his offices barking orders and demanding magic phones to be created. Is there any chance that he laid down some very difficult challenges and paid up for the people that solved them?

            People vote and exercise their freedom with their feet. I’ll bet people lined up to try to work for these guys.

        2. “Greed, for lack of a better word, is good.”

          Funny how they always leave that middle part out.

          But “aspiration” is a perfectly cromulent word so I don’t know why he didn’t think of using it. “Wanting more” is a virtue, it’s what led to all of human progress. Being content with what you’ve got and never wanting anything more makes you lazy. (Or a Buddhist, I suppose.) “Greed” is wanting more than is good for you or wanting more just for the sake of having more. That’s bad – but then you run into that little problem of defining where more becomes too much more and who gets to decide where the line is.

          I’m sure Michael Moore would be happy to tell you where the line is, but that fat bastard obviously doesn’t know how much food is too much food so why would anybody listen to him? And somebody ought to smack him upside the head and point out that greed isn’t limited to a lust for material wealth, there’s such a thing as wanting more power than it’s good for you to have and if he wants a good look at somebody that’s greedy for power he should try looking in a mirror.

    3. And it feeds into the cognitive dissonance so prevalent these days.

      The customer sits in a clean, well-run restaurant, eating their fresh, acceptably-tasty Big Mac, observing the generally happy, smiling faces of their fellows, and then they think of this movie, experiencing a contradiction that must occur to even the meanest mind.

      The disturbing thing is I don’t think the average citizen tries to resolve that contradiction; it’s become so pervasive. They believe both things: that this is a good place to eat good food, and also that McDonald’s are exploitative and symptomatic of what ills society. Four fingers become five, and vice versa.

      The conclusion must be that the good somehow equals the bad. That by experiencing something life affirming you are part of the problem. That success is bad. That you are guilty. That you must repent. And that the government is your confessor.

  6. Kroc is a true believer in the wonders of capitalism (pitching prospective franchisees, he tells them, “Put your arms around the American dream”), but he has a tenuous allegiance to moral norms

    I am shocked. Capitalism, depicted as morally dubious? by Hollywood? this may take some time to fully register.

    1. While you’re waiting for it to register, go see the movie so you can get the full effect. I understand that if you go to Hollywood, all the theaters are showing it for free plus you get free popcorn and candy and soft drinks because those folks know it’s wrong to demand payment for a product everyone should be entitled to for free. Only a heartless greedy bastard would charge people just to look at something. I mean, what the hell is that? You’re going to charge me money just to use my own eyeballs? Make me pay to eat and to drink and to sit down? What the fuck? You gonna charge me to breathe, too?

  7. There have already been editorials that dredge up the idea that the businessman won’t know how to be president. Because businessmen are used to barking out orders and seeing their will implemented, while the politician knows how to, well, play politics. This is of course, utterly wrong. Anyone familiar with business knows you have to work with all kinds of people: customers, vendors, government, employees…constantly negotiating and adjusting to get everything working towards your goal, and reacting when things inevitably go off track. Business is hard to do, and companies are fragile. It’s very easy to screw it up, and lots of businesses fail.

    It’s the politician who says, lets pass a law and make people obey, at the point of gun if necessary. And when was the last time our government went out of business.

  8. And the two brothers did OK in the end – Kroc bought the company from them in 1961 for $2.7 million.

    1. Dunno if Kroc was a bastard — he took a great idea and multiplied it over and over again, until it spread across the globe. So who cares whether or not he was personally a dick? He made lives better.

      Results count.

  9. Yeah, but how true is the movie to real life? Was Ray Kroc a jerk? And do “good” capitalists really need to be jerks? I can see the anti-capitalists jumping all over this movie for its depiction of the negative aspects, and overlooking the positive aspects. What if this had been the story of Sam Walton instead of Ray Kroc?

  10. If it weren’t for Ray Kroc Burger King would rule the planet unfettered …. he’s a hero plain and simple.

  11. i don’t see the connection between undermining the achievement that is capitalism and saying that most people who do what kroc did were, at least to some degree, an asshole…and that’s at a minimum. what kroc did is amazing, but he also had to screw over two genius entrepreneurs to get there. it doesn’t make what he did any less of an achievement to also acknowledge that. usually to get to that point you have to move, if not outright cross the line, at some point to make it happen. worth it? i’d say yes. but it is what it is.

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