Who knew that milkshakes would loom so large in the story of how McDonald’s became the corporate behemoth that it is today? From the multi-spindle mixers hawked by Ray Kroc during his salad days, to the seductive lipstick imprint on the rim of a glass containing an ersatz version of the creamy treat, to a contract busting confrontation between Kroc and the McDonald brothers, they’re not just ubiquitous, they’re game changers.
Lurking in the shadows of THE FOUNDER is a very dark, and potentially edifying study of the American Dream in all its manifestations. A bracing consideration of the roles that hard work, persistence, and chance might, or might not, pay off on that one great idea that changes everything. Alas, this portrait of Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton) and how his multitude of failures fueled the corporate phenomenon that is McDonald’s plays it far too safe, failing to embrace the dark complexity of a driven character and the ethical lapses that sprang from that complexity.
We meet Ray as he is driving across the Midwest peddling his latest idea, a machine that can make several milkshakes at one time, to drive-in restaurants just aren’t interested. This venture, as with his others, is about to tank when he gets an order for six of his machines from a place in San Bernardino called McDonald’s. And when he calls them directly to double-check the order, he is bemused to discover that they will need eight, and that they need them yesterday. Standing in front of his latest sales stop, the one devoid of any customers, Ray ponders the noise and bustle traveling over the phone lines, and then gets in his car to drive the 2000 miles or so to San Bernardino to see for himself what this place has that others don’t. Other than eight of his milkshake-making machines.
Thus is the start of the McDonald’s empire, the founding principle of which was an order delivered immediately to a customer. It’s an idea we take for granted now, but Keaton sells the sense of confusion and wonder when the burger and fries he orders is placed in front of him before he can finish counting out his change. That’s no small thing, nor is it when it comes to taking the now familiar concept of the assembly line that takes a burger from grill to customer in 30 second It was a revolution and having the McDonald’s brothers, Dick (Nick Offerman) and Mac (John Carroll Lynch) walking us through the exposition. Their version of the American Dream is to make a living by providing a high quality, consistent product on which the diner can rely, while running a hugely efficient operation. Ray takes one look and milkshake makers are left in the dust of his new plan: franchising the restaurant.
Which brings us to Ray’s version of the American Dream, a version that changes over time from one that closely resembles that of the McDonald’s brothers, whose only concern is quality, to one that will maximize his profits, and that, ironically, begins with milkshakes.
When THE FOUNDER is good, it is a paean to the American can-do spirit, with all three men shown failing, and then picking themselves up, dusting themselves off, and figuring out what went wrong. A sequences that shows Dick and Mac using chalk and a tennis court to design the most efficient burger-making kitchen should be the basis for every business course taught anywhere. It’s also makes for a fine precis on critical thinking in general.
Offerman and Lynch also provide the emotional resonance of the film for reasons that have nothing to do with Keaton’s excellent acting chops. Offerman the analytical thinker whose own dream of franchising failed when he couldn’t figure out how to make franchisees adhere to the brother’s standard, is a no-nonsense eccentric, where Lynch is the sweet one who wears his heart on his sleeve. Their devotion to one another and to their makes them likable even when their demands and delays frazzle Kroc in his quest to make them all rich. That’s reinforced as the brothers slowly come to realize that they have made a deal with the devil.
As written, Ray is a cipher. Keaton brings the perfect descant of despair to the glad-handing, fast-talking salesman at the start, the one who takes a swig from his hip flask when a sale isn’t made, who recites the self-help spiel from the record he carries with him on the road, wanting to believe in it rather than giving it his absolute unquestioning faith. There is, however, a lapse in writing from that character who fulminates with rage over a piece of lettuce on one of his hamburgers, to the one at the end, the glad-handing shark who discards a loyal, long-suffering wife (Laura Dern) with small talk over dinner, openly woos another man’s wife while also going into business with him, and finally commits a needlessly cruel swindle on those least worthy of receiving such treatment. And then gloats.
THE FOUNDER devolves into a paint-by-numbers series of episodes showing close-calls, serendipitous meetings, and a host of underwritten supporting players showing up at just the right moment to give Ray a necessary bit of business acumen, or an idea that will lead down the slippery slope of the non-food for which fast-food is infamously renowned. The emotional journey is absent in the headlong pitch towards the inevitable. Instead of mining the very rich conflicts that can come from the tug of conscience versus profits, it becomes the cinematic equivalent of empty calories.