The Founder | Film | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

The Founder

This origin story of McDonald’s shifts from cheery to darker

On the go: Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton)
On the go: Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton)
John Lee Hancock’s dramedy The Founder recounts how one California hamburger stand became the global force and mega-brand that is McDonald’s. It begins in the mid-1950s with Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton), a struggling salesman always on the hunt for the golden ticket; he’s currently hawking multi-spindle milkshake machines without much success.

Except that one place — a take-out hamburger stand in San Bernadino — needs several in a hurry. It’s owned by two brothers, Dick (Nick Offerman) and Mac McDonald (John Carroll Lynch). When Kroc shows up, they show him the secret to their success: a streamlined process of making consistent burgers, fries and drinks. The brothers have the food-prep process down, and have even dreamed up the signature golden arches. Kroc smells opportunity, and signs a deal to roll out franchises in the Midwest, where he lives. After some early bumps, things proceed grandly, with arches joining the skyline along with those other reliable American totems, crosses and flags.

The first half of the film plays like a corporate hagiography, casting a rosy glow over the innovative ideas and practices that came to define McDonald’s as well as countless other restaurants and retail stores. But then the film turns darker: Kroc becomes a jerk in his personal life; the deals get uglier; and the story illuminates a take-no-prisoners form of capitalism. It’s business, not brothers or burgers. “Dog eat dog, rat eat rat,” explains Kroc (in perhaps the last time the media-savvy marketer ever mentioned those animals when discussing his restaurants).

Keaton is a reliable actor, and well suited for this role, which requires him to travel from sympathetic everyman to self-interested cutthroat masquerading as an everyman. This odd shift in tone — it’s the American dream backed with the American nightmare — turns a standard bio-pic into something slightly more interesting. We celebrate the individual achievement, but the story is never as glossy as the corporate dossier suggests. Still, it is the victor who writes history, and billions and billions of hamburgers served makes The Founder, warts and all, a story of success.

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