In a key scene from The Founder, a new drama about the making of McDonald’s, 52-year-old salesman Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton) tries to persuade the McDonald brothers, Dick (Nick Offerman) and Mac (John Carroll Lynch), to let him franchise their revolutionary fast-food business across the nation. The brothers are small-time operators, content with their thriving restaurant in San Bernardino, California, but Kroc, an Arlington Heights entrepreneur who’s been chasing business opportunities all his life, has a special feeling about McDonald’s. For years he’s been crisscrossing the country as exclusive sales agent for a newfangled multiple-milkshake mixer, and in every small town he sees a courthouse topped with a flag and a church topped with a steeple. To these he wants to add the brothers’ golden arches. “McDonald’s can be the new American church,” he tells Dick and Mac. “And it ain’t just open on Sunday, boys. It’s open seven days a week.”
With dialogue like that, The Founder often reminded me of The Master, Paul Thomas Anderson’s thinly veiled biopic about L. Ron Hubbard and the Church of Scientology. Both movies are built around charismatic but morally dubious leaders, men who manipulated and mistreated everyone around them. In fact the early years of McDonald’s franchising, as portrayed in The Founder, share a good deal in common with Scientology: in both cases, people hoping for personal enrichment buy into a rigid set of values and pledge every waking hour to the endeavor. Yet The Founder is primarily a business story, and unlike The Master (which is built around a dense and mysterious performance by Philip Seymour Hoffman), it never pinpoints the personal qualities that might have enabled its protagonist to sweep people off their feet. As scripted by Robert D. Siegel and played by Keaton, Kroc’s a greedy scoundrel, the repository for every bad feeling his empire has ever provoked.
Siegel, a former writer and editor for the Onion, zeroes in on the conflict between Kroc and the McDonald brothers and plays it for hard-hearted laughs. Natives of New Hampshire, the McDonalds moved to southern California in the 1920s and managed a movie theater before opening a barbecue restaurant in 1940; eight years later they decided to shut down the business and rethink it from top to bottom, focusing on speed, efficiency, and quality control. They cut their menu back to the best-selling items, fired their carhops in favor of a walk-up window, and designed the perfect kitchen, chalking its floor plan on a tennis court and putting their workers through the motions to determine the most effective layout. The Founder re-creates all this in flashback as the brothers tell Kroc their story. He fully appreciates their genius, but his genius lies in replicating their model across the land. The Founder reveals how he succeeded, even as he outmaneuvered the brothers legally and won control of their idea and their name.
McDonald’s may not be a religion, but Kroc surely treated it as one. The Founder opens with numerous sequences of the dogged, heavy-drinking salesman going from one drive-in to another, annoyed with their litter, bad service, uneven food, and disreputable clientele of teenage hot-rodders. Once he’s got his hands on McDonald’s, he assembles a bible for franchisees that covers every aspect of the business, from food preparation to employee appearance to maintaining the facility (the grounds were to be swept up regularly, and jukeboxes, pay phones, and vending machines were all banned as sources of trouble). The brothers have gotten their burgers, fries, and shakes down to a science, and Kroc codifies all this to ensure a uniform product. A true zealot, he can’t roll up to his first McDonald’s restaurant in Des Plaines without scouring the parking lot for trash, and in one scene he shows up on a golf course to shake a half-eaten burger at two of his franchise owners and complain about their deviations from the formula.
Faith and family are naturally intertwined, and as The Founder demonstrates, Kroc sold McDonald’s as the ultimate family experience. “McDonald’s—is—family,” he tells his small staff, and in many cases this is literally true: spouses, Kroc discovers, make the best franchise owners, usually with the husband handling the kitchen operations and the wife keeping the books. Ironically, Kroc had a tense relationship with his grown daughter, and as he wrote in his memoir, Grinding It Out, his discovery of McDonald’s turned his marriage into “a veritable Wagnerian opera of strife.” Siegel follows the slow dissolution of Kroc’s marriage to the easygoing Ethel (Laura Dern), who’s tired of never seeing him, and his secret courtship of Joan Smith (Linda Cardellini), whose husband, Rollie (Patrick Wilson), operates a McDonald’s franchise in Rapid City, South Dakota. Like the adulterous protagonist in The Master, Kroc chooses a lover from among his flock.
Smith captivates Kroc with her beauty and grace but also with her business acumen; knowing the high cost of a walk-in freezer for ice cream, she sells him on a new brand of powdered milkshake. Kroc loves the idea, but he’s made a fatal miscalculation in his deal with the McDonald brothers: he needs their permission in writing for any change in the restaurant operation. No sooner has their franchising deal begun than Dick McDonald begins to slow Kroc down, refusing to permit a sponsorship deal that will place a Coca-Cola logo at the bottom of every restaurant’s menu sign and withholding letters of permission for restaurants with basements, a necessity in colder regions where furnaces are required. A running gag has a furious Kroc hanging up on Dick at the end of every long-distance call; when Kroc proposes the shake mix to the brothers, Dick turns him down flat, insisting that McDonald’s milkshakes will have real milk in them, and finally hangs up on Kroc, cinching up his tie proudly.
There are plenty of business lessons in The Founder, and the most important one comes when Kroc, desperate for operating capital, meets Harry Sonneborn (B.J. Novak), a former vice president at Tastee-Freez who helps him straighten out the company’s finances. “You’re not in the burger business,” Sonneborn advises him. “You’re in the real estate business.” With Sonneborn’s help, Kroc forms the Franchise Realty Corporation, which buys real estate, constructs properties, and leases them to franchisees; eventually this company, legally separate from Kroc’s franchising partnership with the brothers, buys up almost every McDonald’s restaurant in America. In a stunning end run, Kroc acquires the San Bernardino lot where the brothers still operate their original restaurant; when Dick McDonald phones him to ask what’s going on, Kroc tells him, “Your authority stops at the door and at the floor.” Just to rub it in, he’s sent them a big box of milkshake mix.
These business maneuverings are pretty entertaining, but in the end The Founder must stand or fall as a character study, and the man onscreen is too unpleasant to have inspired so many people. Manic and perpetually exasperated, he’s less a fully defined personality than a graying version of the comic hustlers Keaton used to play in the 80s. Siegel, for his part, sums up Kroc’s spiritual life with an early scene in which the traveling salesman, settling down for the night in his hotel room, polishes off a half pint of Canadian Club while listening to a spoken-word LP about the power of persistence. The Founder is candid about Kroc’s drinking problem; he’s never without his flask, and his opening spiel about the wonders of the multimixer, delivered to the camera in close-up, is just a little bit woozy. In fact his drive to succeed is only another form of addiction.
Even if Keaton had brought a little more charm to the role, Kroc’s ruthlessness makes him a hard man to like. He takes advantage of Ethel, secretly mortgaging their home to help finance McDonald’s, then coldly dumps her to marry Joan. (In fact there was a second wife in between Ethel and Joan, and Kroc dumped her too.) When Mac McDonald, stressed by one of Kroc’s bullying phone calls, collapses of a diabetic seizure, Kroc flies out to LA and shows up in Mac’s hospital room with flowers—then presents the brothers with blank checks and asks how much they want to sever their ties with the business. They walked away with a million dollars each, though according to the end credits, Kroc reneged on a handshake deal to pay them 1 percent of the profits in perpetuity, which would be worth more than $100 million a year now. “Business is war,” Kroc tells the McDonalds at one point. “If my competitor were drowning, I’d walk over and put a hose right in his throat.”
Joan Kroc is a relatively flat character in The Founder, but in real life she demonstrated some of the humanity her husband lacked. Theirs was a stormy marriage—in 1971 she filed for divorce and took out a restraining order against him—and according to Lisa Napoli’s biography Ray & Joan, her fruitless attempts to get him off the bottle led her to Al-Anon and eventually inspired her to launch an alcohol-awareness campaign through their Kroc Foundation. After Ray Kroc died in 1984, Joan focused on giving his fortune away to charity—Napoli’s book includes an 11-page appendix of the millions and millions of dollars she donated during the next two decades to peace initiatives, AIDS treatment, addiction treatment, medical research, cultural organizations, hunger programs, and on and on. Her posthumous gifts included $225 million for National Public Radio and $1.5 billion for the Salvation Army. Too bad there aren’t more churches like that, and open seven days a week. v