McDonald's was founded in 1940 as a barbecue restaurant in San Bernadino, CA by McDonald brothers Dick and Mac. As drive-in restaurants became more popular (and problematic due to the clientèle they attracted and the overwhelming menus), the brothers reformulated their restaurant to serve three items: burgers, fries and soft drinks. As their business took off (and the concept of walking up to a window was not met with great enthusiasm at first), they came into contact with milkshake machine salesman Ray Krok, who struggled to sell his five spindle mixer because no one need to make five shakes at one time. But the McDonald brothers did. In fact they needed to make 40 shakes at one time, and Krok was intrigued enough to travel across the country to see what all the fuss was about.
The McDonald brothers showed him their efficiency in being able to serve a meal in 30 seconds, in disposable containers (drive-ins usually used actual plates and silverware) to lower the costs and losses, but when Krok asked why they didn't grow the business they said they had tried and failed due to lack of quality control. A prototype of the building with the now famous "Golden Arches" still stood in Phoenix, and Krok convinced the brothers to let him be their leg man, making him a partner and taking their business nationwide. But as the company grew, so did Krok's ego, stepping all over the brothers, his franchise owners and even his own wife in his quest for success. While McDonald's became a global success, the tragedy left in Krok's wake leaves a bad taste in the end.
But that's what makes The Founder such a good movie. It doesn't fail to shy away from Krok's drive and determination, it doesn't shy away from showing how badly he hurt his first wife and the McDonald brothers. He royally screwed many people in his quest to get to the top, and it is a ballsy move to make your central "hero" character a total dick by the end of the movie. As Krok, Michael Keaton gives a terrific performance, putting the audience squarely on his side as he constantly battles the seemingly unreasonable Dick McDonald (Nick Offerman). Why, we think, won't this man allow his business to thrive? But his suspicions about Krok bear out the truth in the end, and as we see Krok's true colors, Keaton takes his hero to villain with ease, putting the audience on the brothers' side by the time the credits roll. It's a great performance and the writing is done so well that the change is gradual instead of jarring. I can't think of another actor more perfectly suited for this part, but had it been made in the 1970s, Jack Nicholson could have pulled it off too.
Keaton's Krok is the main focus of the film and he's in nearly every scene. But the supporting cast also gets to shine. Offerman and John Carroll Lynch are perfect as the brothers with different viewpoints. Dick is the eternal pessimist while Mac strives to remain optimistic until Krok finally pushes them too far (and almost to the grave in Mac's case). The phone conversations between Dick and Ray are some of the film's highlights, especially as Dick begins to employ Ray's more aggressive tactics against him. Laura Dern has an almost thankless role as Krok's first wife Ethel, who mainly sits at home waiting for Ray to return from the road. But she does get to shine as he allows her to be his partner in an effort to sell the franchise as a family endeavor to married couples. Dern's Ethel sparkles when she finds herself good at selling, and then breaks our hearts just with her facial expression and body language when Ray suddenly announces at the dinner table that he wants a divorce (for reasons that only add to his dickishness).
Director John Lee Hancock keeps the story moving by always taking us back to the McDonald brothers as they struggle to run their own business while dealing with Krok, allowing us to see both sides of the coin throughout the run time of the film. The production design is magnificent, from the drive-ins to the classic McDonald's buildings. Seeing that familiar structure with the arches really took me back to my childhood and the times spent visiting the McDonald's just a short distance from my house. Costumes, hair and decor are also on point, immersing the audience in the film's time period.
Many people have probably heard of Ray Krok as the founder of McDonald's, but The Founder does a great job in peeling back the mythology Krok created for himself and his business, and finally gives credit to the men who really laid the groundwork for what McDonald's became. It's a great movie that doesn't shy away from the ugliness that this empire was built on. One has to wonder how seeing the true story of the McDonald brother and Ray Krok will influence how people feel towards McDonald's today. Was it just business, or will it leave a bad taste in the end?