When Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton) first lays eyes on the original McDonald's hamburger joint in San Bernardino, California, it's love at first sight. He'd been schlepping all over the Midwest, hawking an eight-spindle multi-mixer with limited success — the latest in a series of speculative products on which he'd hoped to cash in — until two California brothers put in an order so large Kroc assumed it was a mistake.
He is baffled, then smitten, by his virginal McDonald's encounter. At first, he won't believe that his food is ready instantly. "I just ordered it," he reminds a cheery cashier. And then, relenting: "Where do I eat it?" Alongside families and smiling children, Sunday dresses as white as new-fallen snow, and even the occasional African-American — it is 1954, after all, the year of Topeka — Kroc immediately sniffs the restaurant's broad appeal. For starters, it's a welcome change from the drive-ins that have become dens of teenage promiscuity and poor service nationwide. An idea occurs ...
So begins The Founder, the story of the McDonald's restaurant chain through the eyes of the man who built the empire. It opens Friday in the Cleveland market.
After a tour of the spit and polish operation, Ray Kroc begs owners Dick (Nick Offerman) and Mac (John Carroll Lynch) McDonald to tell him their story, the highlight of which might be the actual origin of American fast food: Dick and Mac tell how they assembled their teenage staff on a tennis court and forced them to rehearse their individual moves on a chalk blueprint of the kitchen — squirting imaginary ketchup and mustard, placing imaginary pickles on imaginary buns, frying up imaginary French fries for exactly two minutes and 57 seconds. Dick choreographs from atop a step ladder, occasionally huffing down to rearrange the chalk drawings, until at last they achieve the key McDonald's ingredient: efficiency. This, we intuit, is revolutionary stuff. It's what innovation looks like. (And it's a crisply edited sequence on screen, intercut with the brothers' dinner with Kroc.)
Kroc, of course, is not an innovator. He is a traveling salesman with a boner for the next big thing. He's the man who wants to take the concept national, from "sea to shining sea." In a pitch to the McDonald brothers, Kroc invites them to consider their restaurant as the next American gathering place, a family-friendly establishment that will be as essential to the American small town (and psyche) as the courthouse and the church.
What Kroc most certainly isn't is McDonald's "founder." That's the cruel irony at the heart of the film's title. It's also the film's most difficult question: Kroc built the empire, and reaped the rewards. But should his sledgehammer salesmanship be celebrated alongside the McDonald brothers' actual ingenuity and country-bumpkin nobility? Or should it be condemned? It's not only the McDonald brothers who become victims of Kroc's empire, after all; it's not only his devoted wife (Laura Dern), who is cast aside. We all become victims. In another director's hands — Oliver Stone, say, or Danny Boyle — the opening and closing credits might have been set to a montage of American obesity.
And yet, the film is in John Lee Hancock's hands, the same inoffensive hands that sculpted The Blind Side and Saving Mr. Banks. In them, Kroc is sensitively, sometimes lovingly, portrayed. Through the raspy, plucky vehicle of Keaton, he is merely the down-on-his-luck salesman who, like any good American, just wants to strike gold. On a plot of land in Des Plaines, Illinois — the location he'll eventually refer to as McDonald's No. 1, in defiance of San Bernardino — he crouches in the dirt and grabs a handful of earth, not unlike Maximus did before his bouts in Gladiator, and whispers: "Let me be right just once ... just this once."
The fact that you can root for this villainous dirtbag at all is a testament to Keaton's performance (which is superb), but also speaks to certain omnipresent American ideals about capitalism and individualism, about the primacy of commerce and slime. And while there's value in a textured 3-D portrait — anti-heroes are fun! Walter White! -- we need look no further than the newspaper to see where the veneration of such ideals has brought us.