"Greed is Good", American Landscape, B.J. Novak, Big M Burgers, Big Mac, biography, Biopic, Capitalism, Dick McDonald, Fast Food, Fastfood Nation, Film, film review, Gordon Gecko, Hamburger, history, Ice Cream that ISN'T Ice Cream, Jim Gaffigan McDonalds, John Carroll Lynch, John Lee Hancock, Laura Dern, Linda Cardellini, Mac McDonald, McDonalds, McDonalds Brothers, Michael Keaton, Mr. Universe, Nick Offerman, Ray Kroc, Supersize Me, The Founder, There Will Be Blood, WallStreet
The Founder isn’t Supersize Me or Fast Food Nation because by the end of the film my heart went out to McDonalds, or really the two men who founded McDonalds and lost everything to one man’s greed and personal failings. This didn’t stop me however from going out to McDonalds the very next day to buy myself a big mac so I guess in a way the film succeeded and failed simultaneously.
Then again it’s hard to say no to a man like Ray Kroc who opens the film with a pitch, one the viewer is expected to hear again before the end of the film:
Ray Kroc: I know what you’re thinkin’… What the heck do I need a 5-spindle for… when I barely sell enough milkshakes to justify my single-spindle. Right? Wrong. Are you familiar with the notion of the chicken or the egg Mr. Griffith, I mentioned… that there’d be costs. Well, I think it applies here. Do you not need the multimixer because, well heck, you’re not selling enough milkshakes. Or are you not selling enough milkshakes because you don’t have a multimixer? I firmly believe it’s the latter. Because your customer comes in here and he knows if he orders a shake from your establishment… that well, he’s in for a terrific wait. He’s done it before and he thinks to himself, well by golly, I’m not gonna make that mistake again. But if ya had the Prince Castle, 5-spindle, multimixer… with patented direct-drive electric motor we’d greatly increase your ability to produce… delicious, frosty milkshakes, FAST. Mark my words. Dollars to donuts, you’ll be sellin’ more of those sons of bitches…then you can shake a stick at. You increase the supply, and the demand will follow… Increase supply, demand follows. Chicken, egg. Do you follow my logic?I know you do because you’re a bright, forward thinking guy who… knows a good idea when he hears one. So… What do you say
The answer to this long pitch is an immediate no, but hopefully the viewer, by the time Michael Keaton is done delivering this opening soliloquy, will say yes and then immediately ask themselves the same question I was asking throughout The Founder: Where the hell has Michael Keaton been for the last decade and why is he only just coming back?
I checked The Founder out more out of impulse than legitimate curiosity. I’ve mentioned repeatedly that I work at a library, so much so that my regular reader has probably learned to skip these opening intros because they realize they’re usually now just I found DVD or Book X at the library. But in all seriousness though the fun part of my job is the day to day discovery of a book or film that I didn’t know I had access to. Now because it’s summer and families have more vacation time due to summer vacation I tend to have to leave my job at the desk and help the staff of circulation because their DVD rack gets filled at least three times a day. That isn’t hyperbole it literally fills up with DVDs, CDs, and audiobooks every day at least three times a day and of course every tenth DVD is missing from the case. While the Circ staff checks out patron’s items I’ll usually go over and check items in and one day a week or so back The Founder crossed my path. I’d seen previews for it on YouTube, and maybe it was those original previews, or perhaps the dynamic cover of Michael Keaton standing between those golden arches, or maybe it was my desire to start watching more films, but whatever the case I placed a hold on the DVD and as soon as it came in I watched it and was left amazed and left with a real sense of injustice.
The Founder is a biopic about Ray Kroc, a traveling milkshake-maker salesman who wants, to quote Belle from Beauty and the Beast, more than his provincial life. Ray is looking for something that will lift him into something larger than himself. While on his cross-country trip he discovers a restaurant called McDonalds run by two brothers who have started up a burger joint using something called Speedee system in which people are able to purchase burgers, fries, and a milkshake and get it the moment they place an order. Ray listens to the brothers tell their story, and after trying to return to his original life he decides he has to help the brother franchise their business. They resist but ray persists until they draw up a contract with him and he begins establishing McDonalds’s across the United States until he eventually becomes the de facto CEO of the company. The McDonalds brothers are eventually forced out of the company and Ray becomes the “founder” of the company running the brothers out of their business and leaving them little if any financial compensation.
The plot synopsis should hopefully explain why, at the end of the film, I was left with a real feeling of injustice. Michael Keaton shines as Ray Kroc, and his performance as this character has already garnered some critical observations that, apart from being screwed out of an Oscar nomination, he has established the Ray Kroc character into an icon of corporate corruption. Much like Gordon Gekko in WallStreet, Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood, or Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network, Ray Kroc is a man who rises to power not because he has any kind of special individual talent, but because he has more or less risen to power off of the sweat, labor, and inspiration of other people.
Ray isn’t even too proud to admit that’s more or less exactly what he did. In one of the closing scenes between Ray and Dick McDonald (played by the beardless but ever stern and uber-masculine Nick Offerman) he offers Dick his observation of why he ultimately took the company from them.
Dick McDonald: I just have to ask you one thing. Something I’ve never understood.
Ray Kroc: Alright.
Dick McDonald: That day we met, when we gave you the tour…
Ray Kroc: Uh huh. What about it?
Dick McDonald: We showed you everything. The whole system, all of our secrets. We were an open book. So why didn’t you just…
Ray Kroc: Steal it? Just, grab your ideas and run off, start my own business… using all those ideas of yours. It would have failed.
Dick McDonald: How do you know?
Ray Kroc: Am I the only one who got the kitchen tour? You must have invited lots of people back there, huh?
Dick McDonald: And?
Ray Kroc: How many of them succeeded?
Dick McDonald: Lots of people started restaurants.
Ray Kroc: As big as McDonald’s?
Dick McDonald: Of course not.
Ray Kroc: No one ever has and no one ever will because they all lacked that one thing… that makes McDonald’s special.
Dick McDonald: Which is?
Ray Kroc: Even you don’t know what it is.
Dick McDonald: Enlighten me.
Ray Kroc: It’s not just the system, Dick. It’s the name. That glorious name, McDonald’s. It could be, anything you want it to be… it’s limitless, it’s wide open… it sounds, uh… it sounds like… it sounds like America. That’s compared to Kroc. What a crock. What a load of crock. Would you eat at a place named Kroc’s? Kroc’s has that blunt, Slavic sound. Kroc’s. But McDonald’s, oh boy. That’s a beauty. A guy named McDonald? He’s never gonna get pushed around in life.
Dick McDonald: That’s clearly not the case.
Ray Kroc: So, you don’t have a check for 1.35 million dollars in your pocket? Bye Dick.
Dick McDonald: So if you can’t beat’em, buy’em.
Ray Kroc: I remember the first time I saw that name stretched across your stand out there. It was love at first sight. I knew right then and there… I had to have it. And now I do.
Dick McDonald: You don’t have it.
Ray Kroc: You sure about that? Bye Dick.
I’ll admit freely that I was just about screaming at my television set during this scene. I’m sure at this point in our marriage my wife is used to me talking during the movie, either my comments made towards characters or else just my examinations of the various shots and camera angles made by clever directors, still I should shut up more and just enjoy the movie. Apart from my rage at the character of Ray Kroc however was just a general sensation of being constantly amazed at all the excellent little details of the film. The Founder is a gorgeous movie for the way it presents the time period, the characters, the costumes, the landscapes, and if it hasn’t been addressed already virtually every actor in The Founder manages to give a career-defining performance. If it isn’t Keaton slinging his Midwest accent and giving us a man who’s constantly hungry for more it’s Nick Offerman winning every scene he’s in, and even John Carol Lynch who manages to be the most pitifully delightful human being in a movie since I can’t even remember.
But I want to return to an earlier point made which was that The Founder is yet another in a long line of American films which examines corporate greed and how ultimately kind people are screwed by the frenetic individuals who aren’t satisfied to break even. Michael Keaton plays Ray Kroc as a constantly moving man who isn’t satisfied to stand still in one place or space, he is constantly speaking about expansion and the possibility that is McDonalds. During one passage of the film the reader is able to watch Ray give more-or-less the same speech to a room full of Shriners, jewish council members, board-room executives, and casual people in a school gym and Ray’s dedication to expansion is presented in his rhetoric.
Ray Kroc: I’m looking for a few good men… and women. Who aren’t afraid of hard work. Aren’t afraid to roll up their sleeves. I’m looking for scrappers, hustlers, guys that are willing to roll up their sleeves. They’re livin’ on drive, they got a little fire in their belly. I stand right here before you today, I’m gonna offer you something as precious as gold. And you know what that is? Anybody? Anybody? Opportunity. It’s opportunity. Opportunity. Opportunity to advance, to move forward, to move up, to advance… To succeed. To win. To step up. The sky’s the limit. The sky is the limit. Grab the brass ring. To give yourself a shot at the American dream. Put your arms around the American dream. Opportunity. Cause I’ll tell ya somethin… At McDonald’s? It’s like this great nation of ours… Some of that elbow grease. I guarantee ya, if you got the guts… the gumption, the desire… I guarantee ya you can succeed. There’s gold to be had. At the end of… those Golden Arches… Golden Arches. Golden Arches. Now who’s with me? Who wants to jump on that ladder to success? Be part of the McDonald’s “mishpokhe”. Now who’s with me? Come on, lemme see some hands.
One of the greatest criticisms of The Founder is that is tries to tell the same story that There Will be Blood or Wall Street did only with less character development. Most of the reviews of this film have complained that Michael Keaton’s performance is one long series of fast-paced speeches, and the New York Times in their review more or less compared him to the Road-Runner. Obviously I have nowhere near the ethos that the New York Times has in terms of film criticism, but I would like to think that I have an ethos when it comes to Loony Tunes and I didn’t see Michael Keaton go “beep-beep” once in this movie. Keaton plays Kroc as a man who is never satisfied. Kroc is always moving from one scheme to the next because he’s always seeing or looking for something bigger than himself and so it makes sense why he eventually has philosophic differences with the McDonalds brothers. It makes sense why he leaves his wife who is always wanting him to just settle down and be happy with what he has. It’s easy to look at Keaton’s performance of Kroc and think that he’s playing him up as a kind of cartoony Gordon Gecko on speed, but if the reader really listens and pays attention to Kroc hopefully they’ll see that the reason there isn’t too much introspection of Kroc’s character is because the man isn’t the contemplative kind. He isn’t deep and he isn’t truly original.
Ray Kroc is a persistent man. That is his defining quality, and in this trait he is successful.
In one of the closing scenes Ray is preparing a speech for a dinner he’s going to have with then governor of California Ronald Reagan, and speaking once again to the camera Keaton manages to once again win his viewer, not because he’s a decent man, but because his conviction is real.
Ray Kroc: Now, I know what you’re thinkin’. How the hell does a 52-year-old, over-the-hill milkshake machine salesman… build a fast-food empire with 16,000 restaurants, in 50 states, in 5 foreign countries… with an annual revenue of in the neighborhood of $700,000,000.00… One word… PERSISTENCE. Nothing in this world can take the place of good old persistence. Talent won’t. Nothing’s more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius won’t. Unrecognized genius is practically a cliché. Education won’t. Why the world is full of educated fools. Persistence and determination alone are all powerful.
The Founder as a film may be an opportunity to explore the downsides of capitalism and remind the viewer that there are always going to be sleazebags like Kroc who will steal someone else’s vision and manage to get away with it, but my final impression of the film is something entirely different. Regardless of the man’s personal character, and regardless of the fact that I would always end the film calling Kroc a contemptable prick, McDonalds as an idea does speak to something of the American vision. I wish I could find the quote specifically, but when Kroc sells his idea of the franchises to the McDonalds brother he compares the golden arches to the cross and the flag, the idea being that McDonalds can be a place where American people, break bread, find bodily sustenance, and share ideas. This seems like a ridiculous notion, until I remember my own upbringing.
I was a spoiled child, and as a kid I would often complain about food made at home. I complained because I wanted to go to McDonalds. I loved the playground, I loved the cheeseburgers, I loved the fries, and I loved meeting other kids and playing with them and making new memories. Kroc may have been a contemptable prick, but he was onto something when he realized that if you sell a company, not just as a burger joint, but as a space where people can find something, something like family, the American people would buy it and buy into it.
I went out and bought a big mac with fries the day after watching the movie, and in the store I saw a man writing on his laptop, a family eating and talking and laughing, and two friends eating cheeseburgers and laughing. McDonalds is still an American icon, and still an idea that people are buying.
Unlike a movie like Wall Street, where corporate executives dressed in ties and suspenders read The Art of War and buy up abstract stocks, The Founder digs into the meat and bone of the American landscape and the desire of those living within to be successful, not just at a local level but something more. The film is a chance to try and understand why Americans are so driven to push and drive into new territories and make something in that new space, or, at the very least, why they’re trying to make something new where you can buy a cheeseburger for under fifteen cents.
All quotes from The Founder were provided by IMBD.
While I ultimately disagree with their final summation of the film, I have included the New York Times review of The Founder here if the reader is interested in a second opinion. Enjoy:
There are many, many opinions about McDonalds, some fair, some unfair, some that are about lizards who dance the polka and buy Weird Al albums, but perhaps the best opinion I’ve heard expressed is the one by Jim Gaffigan in his Mr. Universe Special. It’s become something of a private joke between my friend Kevin and I, and I include it here in honor of our friendship. Love you bro.