Monday, July 10, 2017

The Founder

If I saw a competitor drowning, I'd shove a hose down his throat.

Ray Kroc billed himself as founder of the McDonald's Corporation, but in fact was the guy who multiplied the franchises across the U.S. and eventually around the globe.  Maurice and Richard McDonald were the true founders, a pair of nice guys who, after several failed to mediocre businesses, hit upon a formula to deliver well prepared food, fast.  Their San Bernadino, CA restaurant became an almost immediate local smash.  They were meticulous in how the restaurant was designed, how employees moved around, station to station.  How much ketchup was on each properly flipped patty.  The place was immaculate. The menus were limited to hamburgers, fries, and milkshakes.   They cared about their employees.

Kroc was selling milkshake makers when he met the McDonald brothers.  Their demand for several of them was enough to bring the middle-aged salesman (with several failed ventures of his own) out to California to see what it was all about.  He is immediately smitten.  The employees were quick and accurate.  The wheels began to turn.  Kroc thinks big.  The brothers aren't so sure; their few attempts to expand lead to compromised standards in the other restaurants.  Kroc thinks he can maintain them in dozens of locations.  Maybe more.  Yeah, many more.

At first, he is as exacting and caring of the McDonald's paradigm as Mac and Dick.  He angrily raids locations that cater to hooligans who like to loiter and leave trash about.  Franchises that corrupt the menu with fried chicken and burritos.  But a man like Ray Kroc can forgive details in the name of expansion.  Soon, he is convinced that Insta-Mix powder tastes as good as a milkshake made with ice cream.  Refrigeration costs are a bear, after all.

When Kroc learns that true profit comes from ownership of the land on which those franchises sit....

2016's THE FOUNDER tells the McDonald's story soberly, in as straightforward a fashion as you would expect from director John Lee Hancock, who previously directed THE BLIND SIDE and SAVING MR. BANKS.  The screenplay is by Robert Siegel, who penned THE WRESTLER. His decision to tell this story from Kroc's point of view makes it all far more interesting and even complex.  It's an absorbing movie, utterly fascinating at times.  We get a fair amount of detail about the restaurant business and the legal machinations which entail.  Apparently Siegel pretty much stuck to the truth.  The story really didn't require any embellishment or contrivances.

That's all fine, but what really makes THE FOUNDER more than another standard issue biopic is Michael Keaton's performance as Raymond Albert Croc, a seemingly kindly, enthusiastic fellow who gradually reveals his teeth, his taste for the jugular.  His ambition takes him down those familiar dark roads of severed friendships, broken marriages, dishonored business contracts.  Keaton displays his trademark tics - the friendly cocked back head and endearing Pennsylvanian (though also slightly Midwestern) accent, but he also sports his ice cold game face - sullen cheeks and coal black pupils, when his empire grows.  We've seen that visage morph in his other roles, comedic and dramatic, from NIGHT SHIFT to CLEAN & SOBER to BIRDMAN, and here it personifies the unrepentance of a hard business (but not necessarily a bad?) guy.  One who many would simply call a good capitalist who saw a golden opportunity and ran with it.

John Carrol Lynch and Nick Offerman lend their own quietly effective notes respectively to Maurice and Richard, perfectly embodying the American spirit of persistence, hard work and sweat ethics. Oh, and honesty (cough).  But where does that hard work lead?  Kroc was a tireless worker too, and uses a motivational speech record as his driver.  Both Lynch and Offerman give their real life counterparts a sort of sad humility that basically underlines the "Nice Guys Finish Last" cliche.  Their final scene, as they watch their old sign come down, is quite poignant. 

In the closing moments of THE FOUNDER, Kroc is seen several years after his first meeting with the McDonald brothers,  rehearsing a speech he will give to California governor Ronald Reagan.  He pauses when he comes to that part where he declares himself as the founder.  Is there some regret? Some, any bit of humanity?  Will your Big Mac be a little less satisfying after you watch this movie?
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