The Founder Is A Capitalist Happy Meal With A Vanilla Shake

The story of the soulless McDonald’s businessman at the heart of the fast-food empire, which opens wide on inauguration weekend, has a moral obligation to say more

In 1948, brothers Richard and Maurice McDonald launched their billion-dollar burger franchise with two sandwiches and a hundred rules. McDonald’s banned more things than it served: plates, silverware, jukeboxes, carhops, cigarette machines, frozen foods, phone booths, tables, tipping, and women, who weren't allowed to work at the restaurant until all the teen boys were busy fighting in Vietnam 20 years later.

By then, new CEO Ray Kroc, star of The Founder and an entrepreneur who’d taken over the company with the tenacity and charm of Genghis Khan, had decided female employees were fine — if they were flat-chested and ugly. He wanted wives and children to feel welcome at McDonald’s without worrying that dad was checking out the counter girl. Never mind that Kroc himself had an appetite for fresh meat. The first time the 52-year-old failing milkshake salesman visited a McDonald’s to pitch the brothers his mixer, he barged up to a blonde eating lunch. “It was not her sex appeal but the obvious relish with which she devoured the hamburger that made my pulse begin to hammer with excitement,” he wrote in his salty autobiography Grinding It Out: The Making of McDonald’s (a must-read for people who dig vainglorious self-promotion with lots of exclamation points).

Sure thing, creep-o. Still, Kroc was hungry. He wanted in.

Kroc’s McDonald’s coup is one of capitalism’s meanest cheats repackaged as a success. Branding is everything. Today, Kroc’s maxims are scribbled over inspirational posters of lions — “You’re only as good as the people you hire” — in place of other quotes like, “If any of my competitors were drowning, I’d stick a hose in their mouth and turn on the water.” (Boy, would that look good next to a shark.) As the Conquering Antihero, Oscar-nom Michael Keaton is so alert that his eyebrows appear fresh from fryer. Keaton already played the clown of death in Beetlejuice. Now he’s the clown of commerce, a guy in wrinkled suits who hustles through the movie as though he’s aware he’s only got two hours to convince you he isn’t a cad. Yet America loves a tycoon, and so do the movies. If The Founder had guts to make enemies with Ronald McDonald, it could be this century’s Citizen Kane, indicting us in his 119-country conquest. We’ve all taken a bite out of what Ray Kroc’s selling, and we’re all surviving the ozone catastrophe caused by his cows. All Charles Foster Kane did was start a measly war with Spain.

Director John Lee Hancock is no Orson Welles. Welles was comfortable wrestling with corrupt men, but here and in his Mary Poppins flick Saving Mr. Banks, Hancock tends to panic, nervously deflecting negative attention on men like Kroc and Walt Disney by making everything around them brighter and louder. His biopics are comedies without jokes. They’re so saturated and sprightly that they prod you into forgiving that there’s not much reason to laugh. And so, despite both films being made from bloody meat, The Founder is to Citizen Kane what a 15-cent hamburger is to filet mignon. Actually, that’s not fair to the burger. It’s a good burger, neat and fascist, with pickles and onions predetermined unless you protest. I love them, and with today’s inflation, you can buy seven burgers for the cost of a movie ticket — a more filling investment.

The best parts of The Founder track the change in America’s restaurant industry, in which drive-up joints drove themselves crazy and broke with huge menus — fried chicken! ribs! meatloaf! — and parking lots overrun by teenage delinquents. Richard and Maurice (Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch) tried that in 1940, and then eight years later amputated their kitchen to simply serve burgers, cheeseburgers, and fries. They were brilliantly efficient. To perfect their kitchen layout, they drew chalk lines on a tennis court and forced their employees to mime grilling burgers until they figured out where to place the mustard squeezer. In real life, they ran drills on the court until 2 a.m. Here, Hancock stages the scene in bright sunshine with that glow of someone certain they’re going to crack open America’s golden egg. It’s both inspirational and surreal, exactly the way their brothers would have felt if a time traveler told them their innovations would make their names light up over 33,000 restaurants.

Offerman is a worthy foe for Keaton’s manic emperor. He and Lynch are as loving and levelheaded as Keaton is crazed. They finish each other’s sentences, applaud each other’s genius, and, when Keaton signs an initial deal that gives the brothers total control over his franchises, they stubbornly talk over him, too, after he calls screaming about why they won’t let him dig a basement in freezing Illinois just because they never needed one in California. During these calls, Offerman’s Dick McDonald gets strength from making this Kroc character suffer. Every time Kroc pleads, Richard smiles almost imperceptibly, the corners of his mouth curling in joy like a mule who’s just been fed a carrot. It seems impossible that Kroc could seize power from the brothers’ granite reserve, and it should feel horrible that he will. But Hancock has a teenager’s way of taking sides against the adults. They just don’t understand Kroc’s vision, man — and we know that Kroc is right, or at least right that there’s money in doing something very wrong. To Hancock, that’s enough.

Back in the Midwest where, a decade later, Kroc would claim he founded McDonald’s, crumpling up the brothers’ legacy like a straw wrapper and drinking that milkshake himself, we spend way too much time with Kroc’s wife, Ethel (Laura Dern), a wan woman who’s sick of her husband dominating their marriage with his boneheaded schemes. It’s a nothing-burger buzzkill role — Ethel could use some iron in her diet — but through her, we see the way most people looked at Ray Kroc before he was rich: as a big-talking fool. (It’s a point Hancock hammers home again when Kroc begs for a bank loan and gets laughed in his face.) Hancock spends too much time on Ethel’s misery, yet, oddly, he’s too proper to tear into Kroc for cheating on her with his third-wife-to-be, Joan (Linda Cardellini), a beauty who’s half his age and, here, falsely credited with introducing him to powdered milkshake mix. (There will be a second wife between the two, but she doesn’t exist in the film at all.)

There’s not much drama in Kroc’s ascension, only the reassurance that even juggernauts have a hard time starting to roll. In the early years, Kroc must battle wealthy investors who think they’re too smart to follow McDonald’s rules and keep sneaking fried chicken back on their menu. Later, he switches to pushing franchises on middle-class operators, who are easier to control, before hitting upon the real-estate scheme that will make him a triple-billionaire. After his death, Joan, a more generous woman than her husband, gave most of it away. NPR thanks her every day. I could watch a whole film on their later years, as an odd couple who clashed over politics and flat-out human civility, yet still somehow loved each other very much. Kroc once gave Joan grief over a $27 vet bill for her dogs, to which she countered that he’d bought an entire baseball team, the San Diego Padres, and yet had so little affection for them that he once grabbed the PA system to apologize for their “stupid ball playing.”

Alas, we’re stuck with Hancock’s vanilla saga about a soulless businessman who failed until he won big, a story that might have worked in the cynical ’90s but today has a moral obligation to say something with its two-hour running time. Ray Kroc’s restaurants literally changed the face of America and became one of our biggest ambassadors to the world. What does his story say about us? More than Hancock is willing to say, but at least Kroc had a knack for being accidentally honest. He opened his autobiography with a quote he attributes to Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar: “There is a tide in the affairs of men, which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune.” Grandiose words ... spoken by that traitor, Brutus.