At the Movies with Alan Gekko: The Founder “2016”

MPAA Rating: PG-13/ Genre: Historical Drama/ Stars: Michael Keaton, Nick Offerman, John Carroll Lynch, Linda Cardellini, B. J. Novak, Laura Dern, Justin Randell Brooke, Kate Kneeland, Patrick Wilson, Wilbur Fitzgerald/ Runtime: 115 minutes

I think it is safe to say that if you could ever pick a singular brand that has “Americana” written all over it, McDonalds may very well be the one that most people would pick and to me this makes perfect sense. I mean not only does this iconic franchise serve an absolutely astounding amount of people on a daily basis that iconic American cuisine invention that is the hamburger, but it’s grasp on the world has literally extended to virtually every country (save perhaps for Antarctica, but that’s because the penguins have better lawyers). Suffice it to say then that for both kids and adults in equal measure, McDonalds truly is a nirvana of delicious, low-cost cuisine, colors that jump out at you, playgrounds and ball pits that generations can claim as part of their collective childhood memories, and of course the legendary “golden arches” that have become an alluring hook to bring people in from all over the planet. Yet for all the wonderful attributes McDonalds possesses it should be noted that the company has also had its fair share of controversy as well. Indeed be it the infamous “pink slime incident”, the fallout which ensued with the release of the now infamous documentary Super-Size Me, or even stories of snakes slithering about in the ball pits and attacking guests, the iconic restaurant has still tried to do the best it could for both the consumer and the business itself. Perhaps though the most astonishing thing about these incidents is they are what you might consider “modern day”. I say that because the story of how McDonalds came to be is one that is just as rife with strife and calamity yet also riveting and nowhere is that more true than in a film from 2016 known as The Founder. Indeed here is a film that chooses to make its focus on how not only McDonalds became the iconic restaurant it is today, but also how the man behind the dream used some truly ruthless tactics in order to make it the empire it is today as well. Of course when the man in question is being played by Michael Keaton I think it’s safe to say that your film is already on the right track. Thankfully, the rest of the film is just as appetizing as well (pun intended). Indeed it might have slipped by when it first came out, but The Founder is a truly arresting look at both how business can be war, but also how some people can and will do just about anything to come out on top and in the process change the world forever….even if they did things of a duplicitous nature in order to do it.

The plot is as follows: The Founder opens its riveting yarn by introducing us to a man by the name of Ray Kroc. Kroc, we soon learn is a guy who although he has managed to acquire a pretty decent life for both him and his patient and supportive wife Ethel is still always on the prowl and wanting more out of life than what he currently has. To that end, we see our intrepid “hero” acting out part of the Pokémon theme song by traveling both far and wide. Unlike Ash Ketchum though, Kroc is doing it to try and drum up sales for a milkshake mixer which can make several milkshakes all at the same time. Yet in the midst of hitting several walls with potential buyers, Kroc’s life is forever changed when he is told that a restaurant in San Bernardino in California has agreed to buy at least 8 of his mixers. Curious as to just what kind of restaurant would want that many of these devices, we see Kroc make the odyssey out to the West Coast and meet a pair of brothers by the name of Mac and Dick McDonald who we see have come to already make some, at the time, completely revolutionary changes to their respective industry with how their restaurant does business. Changes that include food being ready to give to the customer when they order it, the food being wrapped in paper you can throw away when finished, and most important, it is light on the wallet, but boy oh boy does it taste good. To that end, we see Kroc after thinking it over really see this as a huge chance for him and tries to nudge the brothers towards expanding their idea on a nationwide level. Of course it should come as no surprise to learn that they have issues with this due to a crippling fear that the other restaurants will not be as stable or on the same level of quality as the flagship one is, but Kroc eventually wears them down to the point that they relent and give him a shot. Suffice it to say that by the time he is done McDonalds will be one of the biggest restaurants in more than just the United States, but what will become of him and the brothers? That, dear reader I will leave you to discover for yourself…..

Now I think you should know right off the bat that the title for this film is a tad bit misleading in some ways. That is because Ray Kroc did not come up with the idea for what became McDonalds. Rather he simply guided it onto a trajectory that saw it become a national sensation (big difference). To that end, we see that the movie is one that chooses to really examine Kroc’s talent for building this restaurant up from the original one owned by Mac and Dick in San Bernardino and then proceeding to spread it like wildfire all over the country. An intriguing thing to examine really especially when I tell you that one of the key conflicts this film sets up between the two parties at the heart of the story revolves around their differing perspectives on expansion and how to handle it. Indeed on one side of the coin there is Kroc who is not only dogged and determined, but actually has both a decent amount of business know how about him as well as a mercilessness that slowly but surely consumes him to the point that by the end of the film he could legit be seen as a jerk. On the other side of the coin, we see that the McDonalds Brothers, especially Dick, are more reserved and care more about making sure the quality of the product, the building it is made in, and the service which makes it are one and the same. To that end, some of the more intriguing skirmishes the film gives are not ones of fisticuffs, but rather those found in the filthy and messy area of business as we see Kroc continuing to find methods to step over or on the brothers and make their restaurant what he, not they, wants whist utilizing their brand and revolutionary techniques to bring the customers rolling in. Yes you could argue that Kroc does work hard and sacrifice quite a bit to make things work as they should and that is a fair argument to make. Yet for every single thing that is truly admirable about this guy, there is an in equal measure despicability and sliminess to him that really brings him and his integrity into serious doubt by the conclusion of the film.

To that end, it actually kind of says a lot when the more intriguing aspect of this film is not the definitive story of the creation of the brand that is McDonalds. Rather it is the aspect that this is also in many ways the tale of Ray Kroc. The guy who, despite being the protagonist of the film, the movie intriguingly chooses to make the rather bold decision to not really paint him in colors that say that this individual is either a “hero” or just a genuinely great guy, but instead is a low-key sneaky, clever, and quite duplicitous snake who will literally do whatever he has to do in order to for the first time in his life be the proverbial man on top for once. With that being said, it shouldn’t come as any big surprise whatsoever to learn that, in the lead role, Keaton is truly dynamic through and through. Indeed this is the kind of performance that requires Keaton to walk along a very thin line that, at the beginning, never really shows the hand the character is working with or even hints at the kind of evolution (or devolution) he will undergo during the film’s runtime. To that end, this character’s arc is one which feel more organic as it is one that initially lets the movie goer feel the jolt of excitement about this idea that he has stumbled upon and then begins turning up the heat little by little as the movie goes along. Suffice it to say then that his metamorphosis of sorts into a scumbag may be surprising given how he starts the film, but not really when you think about the arc Keaton has played with during the film’s runtime. Indeed bit by bit his ideas begin to come together, his bond to the business begins to strengthen, and his feeling that his new partners are more a liability than an asset really comes to the forefront. Yet it is ultimately seeing just how far Kroc is willing to go in order to take over that is perhaps the most intriguing element at play and suffice it to say that Keaton manages to work with this character in such a way that you are never entirely sure on if he is trying to build up this business or himself until the very end of the film.

Thankfully the heart of the movie is one that is just as intriguing. Indeed a moment early on in the movie where we see Dick and Mac regale a truly riveted Ray with the tale of both how they came up with the idea for McDonalds, and even more astonishing, created a truly novel game plan for making it work right down to the designing of the various work stations and creating some devices of their own in order to make it as speedy, efficient, and friendly on the wallet as they could make is easily a highlight of the film and really does provide the viewer with an intriguing behind the scenes look at the early day to day operations of this iconic franchise when it was still in its infancy. Heck it really does say something when film helmer John Lee Hancock is able to make the act of putting mustard and ketchup on a hamburger bun an actually riveting moment in a film. Not only that, but Hancock also does a brilliant job of showcasing the organized chaos inside the kitchen fairly well to the point that the design of the store almost feels like its own separate character as we see that all the different components that go into making that truly delicious hamburger all not only offer an arresting demonstration of how productive this restaurant is, but also showcases an entire argument  for just how and why our delightful Mr. Kroc was even remotely drawn to this particular restaurant in the first place.

All in all yes it should be said that although The Founder is a film that regales us with the tale of how not only one of the most known restaurants in the fast food industry came to be to say nothing of how it expanded like wildfire upon the planet, I still feel there is a second movie practically begging to be made here. I say that because this film doesn’t even begin to cover the menu expansion from just hamburgers, fries, and milkshakes (McRib anyone?) or for that matter the birth of their iconic mascot Ronald McDonald and his friends Grimace and Hamburglar, and just the restaurant’s fight to get to be one of the biggest employers on the planet. Thankfully I can also confirm that the origin story on its own manages to be a truly phenomenal (and very well-cooked) film hamburger all on its own. Of course it should come as no surprise to learn that Michael Keaton is both phenomenal and brilliant leading the way, but he also gets wonderful support work from such thespian dignitaries as John Carroll Lynch, Nick Offerman, Laura Dern, Patrick Wilson, B.J. Novak, and Linda Cardellini to aid him in bringing this story to life. To that end, The Founder really truly is an amazing little movie which by the time it is done will most definitely really make you as an audience member question just what you thought you knew. Not just about McDonalds, but about the man who took McDonalds and turned it into an empire the likes of which hadn’t been seen before, but which is still serving up fried, artery-clogging, and quite delicious goodness to this very day. On a scale of 1-5 I give The Founder “2016” a solid 4 out of 5.