** SPOILER ALERT**
If Trump’s monumental rise to power has taught us anything, it’s that salespeople have the potential to make it big. Ray Kroc made history in 1961 when he became the successful owner of McDonald’s: fast food restaurant chain we all know and recognise. Starting out with just a simple franchise idea for a small-town burger joint, he applied cunning and ruthlessness to transform it into a billion dollar empire.
In his latest film, The Founder, director John Lee Hancock does an impressive job of depicting one of america’s most successful businessmen. Ray Kroc, played by the ever brilliant Michael Keaton, is a dejected milkshake salesman whose luck seems to be running out. He chatty and slick talking, but just can’t seem to get the break he’s looking for. One day, out of the blue, he receives a call from a guy at a San Bernardino drive-in requesting six milkshake makers. Intrigued, Ray questions why they need so many, at which point the order leaps up to eight.
Smelling an opportunity, he hits the road. What he finds is a humble burger establishment called McDonald’s. Ray seems utterly bewildered by the concept of fast food: eating out of paper on a park bench proves something of a new experience, but he goes along with it anyway. Enter brothers Mac (Nick Offerman) and Dick McDonald (John Carroll Lynch), the restaurant’s co-founders, who greet Ray and invite him in for a peek at where the magic happens. The Speedee style kitchen laid out before him runs like clockwork. One team flips burgers, while another puts an even number of gherkins in each bun. Even the ketchup and mustard are squirted with precision.
For Ray, it’s love at first sight. What he can’t get his head around is why the brothers haven’t gone big with it. Predictably, he makes them offer. Let me franchise the business, he pleads. Dick and Mac are initially reluctant. Rolling out the business, they explain, will make it difficult to keep standards high. However, after further persuasion, they agree to go along. With a contract drawn up and signed, Ray is ready to get started as the Franchise Manager. First stop, Illinois. Predictably, his debut store runs into problems. Rubbish collects in the entranceway, and, worst still, fried chicken pops up on the menu.
Ploughing on, with the help of a bank loan, he opens more stores. Each passing day brings a new franchiser, and, before long, Ray is ready to branch out to other states. One of those is Minnesota, where he meets keen investor, Rollie Smith (Patrick Wilson). As taken in by Rollie as Ray is, he’s more distracted by the restaurant owner’s wife, whom he can’t keep his eyes off of. Joan Smith, played by the beautiful Linda Cardellini, is a goddess of a woman: blonde, sexy, and with an incredible singing voice. Sliding alongside her on the piano as she plays, Pennies From Heaven, Ray joins in, lecherously. The choice of song is a clever one, as all roads seem to point to it “raining money” in his favour. However, getting there will take some work.
First he must get past two stumbling blocks: his own wife and debt. Wife Ethel (Laura Dern) is rather thrown by his new venture, but offers support where she can. She’s ordinary looking and timid. Not exactly the sort woman you’d expect him to stand by after he hits the big time. In short, she’s no Joan. And as his ego grows, so too does his disregard for her, although we’re never really quite sure whether he’s an asshole to begin with. What’s clear is he’s an animal, and one who will stop at nothing in pursuit of his own goals. “Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence” he tells us, and that mantra rings true for the entire film.
Time after time, Ray finds himself at odds with the McDonald brothers, who clearly don’t share his hunger for expansion. One of his suggestions which they vehemently reject is using powdered milk instead of ice cream in milkshakes. Joan’s dastardly plan to save money is played out like an alchemical transmutation as she empties one of the packets into water and stirs seductively.
Losing touch with reality, Ray ends up in debt and starts receiving final notice letters. Taking his fury to the bank, he makes a chance encounter with Harry J. Sonnerborn (B.J. Novak), a Financial Consultant for a fast food chain called Tastee Freeze. Harry tells Ray that he’s been going about franchising the wrong way. “You’re not in the fast food business, you’re in the real estate business”, he summarises. Harry explains that in order for him to start making big returns, he must buy up the very land on which the stores are built and sell it back to the franchisers. To facilitate this process, Ray starts up Franchise Realty Corporation, attracting new investors in the process.
For obvious reasons, Ray keeps Dick and Mac in the dark about his latest venture. Cordoning in, they argue what he’s doing is a breach of contract. “Contracts are like hearts. They’re made to broken,” replies Ray, revealing his true colours. Shocked by his words, Mac collapses mid-conversation with a heart attack. Rocking up to the hospital with a card and blank cheque to hand, Ray makes his intentions clear: I will buy you out, and there’s nothing you can do about.
As much as I wanted this film to end on a happy note, it was never going to happen. Capitalism dictates that reptiles always come out on top, while mice falter. In that sense, Ray is no different from Gordon Gekko (Wall Street) or Steve Jobs, he’s simply part of a system which favours the ruthless. Rather than simply steal away McDonald’s from it’s original founders, however, Ray offers them each a million dollars (after tax). Shares in his empire are out of the question though. Not even his wife – who he callously divorces – gets a piece of the action.
At a technical level, The Founder really succeeds as a movie. It has that cheery old-time feel about it, made possible by period set design, lighting and fashion. Fast interchanging close-ups of Ray’s face, as he delivers his sales pitches, create a sense of pace, revealing haste and impatience to his personality. Consequently, those same close-ups of Joan offer insight to his animalistic side.
Keaton is arguably the show-stealer. Still riding high off the success of Birdman in 2014, it looks as if the original Batman may very well be on a comeback. That said, Linda is just as beguiling, not forgetting Nick and John, who play the McDonald brothers with exactly the sort of neurotic weirdness we expect from small-town business folk.
If Supersize Me hasn’t completely put you off fast food movies, give The Founder a try.