‘The Founder’ serves up a tasty treat

Michael Keaton portrays the real Ray Kroc in ‘The Founder’

“Luck is a dividend of sweat.  The more you sweat, the luckier you get.” – Ray Kroc

The Founder is the latest historical biopic from director John Lee Hooker (The Rookie, The Blind Side and Saving Mr. Banks.)  It stars Michael Keaton as Ray Kroc, the man who built McDonald’s fast-food restaurants into a global empire.

In 1954 Ray Kroc was selling multiple-spindle milkshake machines when he discovered the McDonald brothers, Dick (Nick Offerman) and Mac (John Carroll Lynch) and their amazing hamburger stand in San Bernardino, CA.  Kroc had driven out west to see the place after the McDonald brothers had ordered more than one of the mixers he was selling.  He was amazed by the sight of people walking up to, rather than driving into an eatery, as well as the way the food was being served.  No plates, no silverware, just paper packaging that was easy to throw away after the diner was done eating.

What Michael Keaton as Ray Kroc finds on his first visit to McDonald’s in ‘The Founder’

Kroc convinced the brothers to try franchising again, their first efforts having failed because the franchisees failed to maintain the high standards of quality demanded by the brothers.  Aided by his secretary June Martino (Katie Kneeland), Kroc began to find franchisees who would comply with his demand for those high standards.  It was Kroc’s goal that every burger and bag of fries in every McDonald’s would taste just as good as those he had on his first trip to San Bernardino.

It was on one of the many trips that took Ray away from his second wife, Ethel (Laura Dern) that he first met Joan Smith (Linda Cardellini).  She was playing piano in a restaurant and their attraction was strong and immediate.

As Ray struggled to build the network of franchises, his relationship with the McDonald brothers grew strained.  In 1961, six years after he had become president of the McDonald’s corporation, he bought them out for enough money so that each of the brothers would wind up with $1 million after taxes.  In negotiating the buy-out agreement, Kroc removed the provision that called for a one-percent royalty to be paid to the brothers forever.  He claimed his investors said that was a deal breaker but he promised to honor the royalty agreement with a handshake.

John Carroll Lynch and Nick Offerman in ‘The Founder’

In the same manner as the recent Rules Don’t Apply, The Founder is focused on a narrow portion of the life of Ray Kroc, in this case from 1954 until 1970.  Other important figures in the gigantic growth of McDonald’s are featured in the film including Fred Turner (Justin Randell Brooke) and Harry Sonnenborn (B. J. Novak) are displayed as the film’s third act focuses on the lightning-fast growth of the company after Kroc wrests full control from the McDonald Brothers.

John Lee Hancock mixes in still and video images from actual moments in the story of the rise of McDonald’s from its humble beginnings.  He has assembled an excellent cast and they did a great job.  Laura Dern plays down her beauty for her turn as the long-suffering, neglected spouse of an extremely driven man.  But this is Michael Keaton’s movie and he makes the most of it.

The Founder is a bit different than other films in the same genre in that it hews closely to the true story.  It understates the importance of June Martino’s role behind the scenes in the early years but since the focus is on the founder, that’s understandable.  The cards that tell the stories of the main players after the film ends in 1970 include one that at this moment, McDonald’s feeds 1% of the world’s population each and every day.  Two interesting factoids about the company that weren’t among those cards are that there are over 36,000 McDonald’s locations around the world, and roughly one in eight Americans have worked at a McDonald’s at one point in their life.

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