American businessman and philanthropist Ray Kroc (1902-1984) was a smooth fast talking operator in the days when salesmen had it tough on the road during the late 40’s, 50’s and 60’s going door to door and store to store, endeavouring to sell their wares.
They wanted to make a lot more than just a buck or two, although to achieve their aims they would need more than just a little luck.
Ray’s life is mundane to say the least, because he is always on the road. Back home he and his wife Ethel live in a house in the suburbs, comfortable and impeccably maintained, but they are just about as unhappy as two people can be.
Don’t read any more if you don’t want any spoilers.
Directed by John Lee Hancock, written by Robert D. Siegel The Founder distributed through The Weinstein Company, is a period piece that perfectly plays to the present, by highlighting the ethical and philosophical complexities of big business surrounding the growth of McDonald’s worldwide. And it’s not pretty.
It is 1954 when Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton), hears that one ‘hamburger joint’ in San Bernardino, a small town in California, has ordered six of his multi-milkshake machines. When he is told by his secretary Myra (Cara Mantella) back at the office he decides to phone ‘McDonalds’ to check it out for himself, because he cannot believe it is true.
He spends his life daily battling to sell just one machine by using every sales trick known in the book. Why would someone want six? While one of the owners has him on the phone he ups the ante, asking Ray to send eight machines before hanging up in his ear.
Ray is now not only totally blown away but also dead curious. Sick of spending his nights in seedy motel rooms without TV listening to motivational records Ray decides to take a road trip. Then he can find out how for himself why one store would want so many. He doesn’t know it yet but his future is about to change dramatically.
Ray discovers brothers Mac (John Carroll Lynch) and Dick McDonald (Nick Offerman), who are successfully running a slickly operated fast food takeaway hamburger business that has queues of people waiting in line eager to buy.
Flattered by his compliments and that he has come so far, Mac and Dick invite Ray to take the tour of their operation. The brothers have developed a system that will ensure all the inefficient drive-in joints, which take 30 minutes and more to deliver a meal for their customers, will soon become obsolete.
McDonald’s as it was first set up is a symphony of efficiency, and it would be fair to say that on first glance stars immediately begin to shine and dance in Ray’s eyes. Well, at least momentarily, until replaced by much bigger rounded golden arches observed in a painting on the wall in the office of the brothers.
Generous and happy he has shown interest, they explain in detail how the whole thing works and he’s dazzled by its design concept and their brilliance at bringing practically to reality to make money.
How they arrived at their design solution to ensure success is a lesson for all those striving to work in the field. It reminded me of my own decor training back in the late 50’s early 60’s at the only ‘design’ school in Australia at that time.
Racing years ahead of himself in his head, Ray can see those splendid golden arches beckoning his fellow Americans. For him they are like the cross on the steeple of a church or an American flag on the top of a pole leading families to McDonald’s. Once there they will be able to worship at the font, giving thanks for American values while eating with gusto and making him rich with a smile.
Franchise, franchise, franchise are the words racing through Ray Kroc’s head. NO the boys tell him, we’ve tried it all before. It doesn’t work. Why? Enforcing standards are just too hard. If we can’t be on site the owners take off on tangents of they’re own.
They don’t adhere to our strict ideas or food service or our guidelines about hygiene, ruining both the system and the business in a short time. We don’t want to be associated with failure is what they are really trying to say.
Ray listens but doesn’t want to be deterred. He wants in on the deal and so they give him an iron-clad contract to go out and franchise their business.
It was Dick McDonald’s dream after all, to see his restaurants coast to coast and now Mac urges him to go for it. The brothers insist however if Ray wants to make any changes in the format or food they must be approved by them both.
He agrees, itching as he is to start.
Ray rushes home to bring the good news to his wife Ethel (Laura Dern) where the silences between them are achingly awful.
Unenthusiastic, she is tired of all his get rich quick schemes. She probably didn’t start out that way but has become a sceptic over time. She does not want to embrace yet another idea, but does her best to be happy for him. They are both getting older and having finally paid off their house. Ethel just wants to start living some sort of life instead of spending all her nights at home alone.
Ray tries and takes her to the golf club for dinner where he also tries to get the people they know interested in his newest scheme. They think he’s full of b***s and while initially two buy one of the franchises, as predicted they don’t follow the rules and stuff it up. So Ray shuts them down, but not deterred, pushes on regardless.
He discovers a smart young hamburger tosser Freddie Turner (Justin Randell Brooke) in one of his training sessions, and keeps him in his mind for the future.
Then suddenly there is a huge hiccough.
Ray’s finally moving into big numbers as McDonald’s takes off and he discovers the % he negotiated for himself is ironically, being eaten away by his own ever expanding overheads.
While the business is a big success for all the franchisee’s, Myra tells Ray that according to her ledger he’s on the verge of bankruptcy personally.
There is no doubt he will lose his house, which he has mortgaged to the hilt without telling Ethel, plus more besides if he doesn’t act quickly.
After being turned down by his local banker, back on the street he meets Harry Sonneborn (B.J. Novak) a self-styled financier.
Harry overheard his conversation from the next booth at the bank. Admiring of what Kroc is achieving to date he chases him onto the street and offers to take a look at his books for free.
Ray agrees and Harry becomes his second main game changer.
He turns Ray’s ideas entirely on their head, by telling him he’s not in the fast food business at all – he’s in the real estate business.
The secret is to own all the land the franchises are built upon. That way he can never go broke, because land is always the asset, not the buildings.
Hallelujah! Ray believes they can now all go to heaven rolling in dosh.
He sets out with Harry’s help to buy up land in key places all over America and beyond. Freddie Turner comes on board too, becoming Ray’s right hand trustworthy man.
When he gets home to tell Ethel all about what’s next it’s already too late really. Ray has also met the girl of his dreams.
Joan Smith (Linda Cardellini), wife of Rollie Smith (Patrick Wilson) is an ornament to her own husband’s fine food restaurant when she comes into Ray’s sights.
She’s playing the grand piano and singing when Ray comes to dine with his associates Harry and Freddie to celebrate their new venture.
There’s an instant connection.
Hitting it off from the start, Ray and Joan croon in tune together and start singing a song that will continue for the rest of their lives.
He discards Ethel and she discards Rollie and they both expand his bright ideas and the cost savings she comes up with. This ensures they will both move on together and make a motza.
The Founder as Ray likes to style himself as McDonald’s grows like wildfire, ensures his luck will change. Adhering to the original brother’s aim of quality over quantity aim, he expands their business way beyond what Mac and Dick would have possibly imagined in their wildest dreams.
They are also both cut out of the deal when Ray sets up his own McDonald’s Corporation Company to buy up all the land, after all their deal with him was only about food.
Then he acquires the McDonald’s name for himself, legally turning it into a logo and copyrighting it to his company. Before you know it, and before they catch onto what is really going down, he’s so rich he can keep them tied up with lawyers until they tire of suing him.
Mac McDonald, who has become a chronic diabetic from all the stress of business, has a very bad turn. He ends up in the hospital with his brother Dick by his side, when in the door walks Ray, clutching flowers in his hand.
Ray says he feels bad for the brothers, but well, business is business and hands Mac a card containing a blank cheque.
He wants them to both come to the negotiating table and make an ‘arrangement’ so they can enjoy some peace at their original location, while he gets on with expanding what he regards now as his business.
They accept a million dollar payout each, plus the money for the tax on that amount so will have it free and unencumbered. Later when he opens a McDonald’s golden arches chain opposite, he puts them out of business for good.
Ray Kroc’s vision was being able to see far into the future and practicing the art of realizing the American Dream as far as it would go. He makes McDonald’s into the retail giant it has become, one that feeds 1% of the planet earth’s population each day.
He also makes those who go along for the ride, including Myra very rich too.
When he died in 1984 Ray and his new wife Joan had also become active philanthropists, able to give it millions away to help others.
Written by Robert Siegel, directed by John Lee Hancock this American biographical drama stars award winning actor Michael Keaton in a role that is a defining one for his career.
You become so engrossed in what he is on about that despite you’re feeling distressed about how he treats the McDonald’s like them both you cannot help but like Ray, even if you don’t admire the way he does business.
It was the name McDonald’s Ray tells the audience near the end, that initially bedazzled him, along with those golden arches. He tells us he knew they would become symbols of good old American values and stand for both family life and business know how. Business is just that, tough, unkind and even cruel is the message.
The movie The Founder follows Ray Kroc and his illuminated pathway, lit by those glittering golden arches, as far as it would go, leaving us to answer the really big questions. What about the morality involved when tromping all over someone and stealing their ideas?
Michael Keaton’s is certainly a solid gold performance, he’s dazzling too and that should lead him all the way to the land of golden Oscars?
Or will it?
Most people want to cheer for the underdog battler in his fifties, one whose total perseverance defines his American dream story, after all isn’t it what we all want?
Well, besides 2 pickles and a dash of sauce on our hamburger!
Will the American public as they take in the moral aspects of this movie hail Ray Kroc as a hero or a villain when they discover the truth about The Founder of McDonald’s.
After all, in the end he held all the cards and came up ‘Trumps’.
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2016
Watch the Trailer