The Founder (2016)

Dir. John Lee Hancock. Starring Michael Keaton, Nick Offerman, John Carroll Lynch

Ray Kroc (Keaton) has no gift for sales pitches, which is the first sign we have that he’s built for something very different. The chicken and the egg pitch he has for the five-spindle milkshake maker he’s hocking never works on anyone, although it intimates the general fixation he nurses. It’s about growing bigger. It’s about taking on risk in order to become something more, which we usually say to signify “greater” or “more important,” but in Kroc’s mind it’s about the mathematical concept. It’s not about a better milkshake but five of them as soon as possible. When he returns to San Bernardino to pitch the McDonald brothers, Dick (Offerman) and Mac (Lynch), on going into business together, his theme is America. Again: this is not a good salesman. I drove around, he tells the brothers, and I’ve seen a lot of towns in this country, and they’ve all got courthouses and they’ve all got churches. Flags and crosses. What Kroc has in mind is a third symbol. In every town, a McDonald’s as well, signified by the Golden Arches. Flags, crosses, and Golden Arches: that is America for Ray Kroc, and by jingo, at the end of the movie he’s gotten it. I don’t know that anything quite measures up to that summation of the American Dream as we learn it in Miss Saigon (“cocaine, shotguns, and prayer”), but flags, crosses, and Golden Arches is a pretty good one.

The reason this stands out to me is because the flags and crosses business is at the center of one of the great scenes in one of the great American movies, My Darling Clementine. Wyatt Earp and the lady he’s too much of a gentleman to try to claim, Clementine, have decided to head to the new church, a church which is still very much unfinished. Our first look at it, though, signifies that there is enough church standing for it to have a steeple with a cross atop it, and there are two flags flying near that steeple. In My Darling Clementine, that scene signifies the myth of this country. You could write a book about the possible significations of that one frame, touching on everything from the historical significance of the film’s director returning to a “Christian nation” after having seen combat against godless totalitarianism to the suggestion that it’s easy to gesticulate with symbols but hard to create a new Jerusalem. The Founder is not My Darling Clementine, and John Lee Hancock is, relatively speaking, nearly as close to being John Ford as you or I. There is no wonderful or brilliant shot which communicates this idea during Kroc’s pitch, which, seeing as this is a visual medium, feels like a shortcoming.

Yet there’s something sickening about this pitch, something malignant and tumorous when put into conversation with My Darling Clementine. Say what you will about religion and America as a nation, historically, contemporaneously. Neither one of them comes off all that well in the accounting, to say the least. Yet at their best, they are ideals. They are meant to represent something more in that convicted, believing way. In My Darling Clementine, they are community, and joy, and decency. With the company of the Golden Arches in Kroc’s monologue, they are the basis of Americana, not of America. Faith and patriotism have been swirled together with greed in this part of Robert Siegel’s script, and even if Siegel is not plugged into Ford at this moment, there’s revulsion at the carelessness of this principle. Why someone might believe in God or in the American people and their government is entirely comprehensible. Anyone who has ever received an answer to prayer or a refund on their taxes knows that they might remunerate you, or at least know you exist. In 1954, all McDonald’s can give you is a fifteen-cent hamburger, and in 2021, inflation has jacked up the price even further. Jesus lives in your heart; McDonald’s can’t get any closer than your arteries.

No one calls Ray Kroc soulless in this movie—Mac manages to rouse himself to calling Kroc a “leech,” which is honestly just about the worst thing that anyone calls him—but it would be a pretty fair descriptor. His “Greed, for lack of a better word, is good” moment comes on the phone call where he gets called a leech. By now, his taste for success, a taste whetted over the course of decades of failures that have made him a minor laughingstock at the country club he mines for franchisees, is terminal. “Business is war” he says to the McDonalds, which is fundamentally different than the way they approach their work. Business is not war for the McDonald brothers, who have a very old-fashioned approach which the movie pretends is quaint. Quaint I suppose it is, but it’s not quaint compared to Ray Kroc so much as it’s quaint compared to John Rockefeller or Cecil Rhodes. The McDonald brothers are not really businessmen after all; they are engineers, problem-solvers who happen to need to make a living, and who have mistaken their ability to operate a high-speed restaurant with being restaurateurs.

Kroc makes the mistake of believing he is a restaurateur, too, at least for a time. The deal he signed with the McDonald brothers simply does not allow him enough room to maneuver to make the kinds of profits that he’s after; in fact, the deal is in danger of taking the roof from over his head. The movie introduces Harry J. Sonneborn (B.J. Novak) and his scheme for McDonald’s the way that bullies introduce dodgeballs to nerds in gym class, but that very talky scene where he changes McDonalds’s for good is arguably the most important one in the movie. It is the scene where Ray Kroc changes from being a businessman to a disruptor, which is to say when that balding, middle-aged tumor turns out to be malignant. If McDonald’s is a real-estate company that happens to sell hamburgers, then it can become a global empire. If McDonald’s is a hamburger joint in San Bernardino, it’ll only ever make those customers satisfied in the Inland Empire at 15 cents a pop, of which Ray Kroc only gets a tiny percentage. It’s not as if one business is somehow less dirty than another, and in fact, as scuzzy and monotone (and dull) as Novak’s Sonneborn is, the movie would not have treated this jump from fast food to acreage as some kind of problem if Kroc had intended to bring the McDonald brothers along. That he views the two of them as dead weight to be cast off so that he can proceed with making gobs of money at their expense is the problem, and The Founder understands it that way. It’s hard to look at the McDonalds here and not think about the people in Mark Zuckerberg’s wake in The Social Network, except the McDonalds version of “lawyer up, asshole,” turns out to be as weak as the handshake deal that screws them out of their royalties.

The movie goes from seeing Kroc as a somewhat ravenous but basically comprehensible salesman to casting him as a slavering ghoul, and for as much ugliness as they have to summon up, I think it’s done with aplomb. A great deal of that comes from Keaton, who never does have to dig too deep to find the inherent scumbag in his roles; I think it’s mostly his nose, but I could be convinced it’s his shifty eyes as well. As Kroc, his joints seem a little loose except when he’s bringing down both palms on a surface to show his anger, like he does when a sales pitch for his five-spindle milkshake maker falls flat or when the bank puts its foot down about his late payments. The gesture is a little too neat to be effective twice, but the signifiers of a person who is chasing easily projected success instead of locking down the decent things in his life are all present. Think of the record that Kroc plagiarizes later in life when he’s talking about the essential nature of persistence to the successful man, or the flask which is never that far from him.

Usually the presence of wives in historical dramas about men is sort of a fraught business, and The Founder is hardly immune to making the women in these roles props to make a point. Indeed, Ethel (Laura Dern) and Joan (Linda Cardellini) are not given a life of their own outside of what they might signify to Ray, although I don’t think that being women is necessarily what makes them sort of empty outside of what he is. The McDonald brothers, who are secondary characters here, have backstories which are inextricably tied up with the burger franchise that Kroc is trying to make into one of the world’s largest real estate holders by film’s end; their history is the only the history of McDonald’s itself. Sonneborn, as noted above, falls into Kroc’s lap like manna with two pickles, ketchup, mustard, and onion sprinkled on top. But it’s Kroc’s wives who signify the ugliness in him most powerfully, I think. When it’s still possible to view the man as a striver and not a heel, the film gives us a scene where Kroc, having returned from a long road trip, lets Ethel have it for not being supportive enough. (Even though later scenes confirm it, movies we’ve already seen have made it plain that Ethel is as supportive as a basically solitary woman can be.) And in the film’s last scene, it’s revealed that Kroc has married Joan, who, of course, was last married to one of Kroc’s early and important franchisees, Rollie Smith (Patrick Wilson). There are scenes which make it clear that Ray is smitten with Joan, and she clearly captivated by him, but they are emphatically non-romantic. There’s that strange drop-in at her McDonald’s franchise, and before that the distracted, predatory, rude way that he stares at the lady playing piano in Rollie’s restaurant. When the soon-to-be famous philanthropist shows up in Ray’s home after being someone else’s wife, the film extends Ray’s umbrella of pettiness and greed over her and her projects as well. Ray Kroc has spent two hours being a venal leech; now it is Joan Kroc’s turn to be complicit for a chance to sit at the same table as Ronald Reagan.

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