Like countless other baby boomers, my first real job was working at McDonald’s. Even in 1976, the thing ran like a machine. Managers went to Hamburger University to learn the ropes and every employee knew, “if you can lean, you can clean.”
In addition to learning how to make Big Macs and Egg McMuffins, every employee learned the company’s history: Ray Kroc opened the first McDonald’s in Des Plaines, Ill. (“Store No. 1”) and with grit and gumption grew the golden arches into an American fast food dynasty.
As John Lee Hancock’s new film “The Founder” details, Ray Kroc “found” McDonald’s all right - in San Bernadino, Calif. where the restaurant was operated by two brothers.
The story begins in 1954 when Kroc is a two-bit salesman having trouble pushing his latest product — a deluxe mixer that makes five milkshakes at once. When he hears that a hamburger joint in San Bernadino has ordered six of them he calls to check it out. The owner confirms it is a mistake — they actually need eight.
Intrigued, Kroc drives to California and sets his eyes on McDonald’s Hamburgers — selling burgers for 15 cents each. Unlike other drive-ins with their roller skating servers, customers walk up to the window to order their food and get it immediately. It is revolutionary.
The McDonald brothers, sympathetically played by Nick Offerman (“Parks and Recreation”) and John Carroll Lynch (TV’s “Fargo”), offer to give Kroc a tour and over dinner they explain the “speedy system” they developed and the trials they went through to be an “overnight success 30 years in the making.” Convinced of the potential, Kroc enters into an agreement with the brothers to create a chain of McDonald’s restaurants.
Thus is the American fast food industry born. Cue the trumpets.
Things start out simply enough. Kroc believes in the business model, making sure the restaurants stick to the original concept’s menu and golden arches design. (When he finds a franchisee putting lettuce on a burger, his reaction brings to mind Joan Crawford’s “wire hangers” tirade in “Mommie Dearest.”)
Kroc desperately tries to grow the company and stay afloat financially while the McDonald brothers desperately try to keep their family business pure. (“It is better to have one great restaurant than 50 mediocre ones.”) As a visionary who finally has an idea worth selling, Kroc morphs into a man obsessed and the naïve brothers realize they have made a deal with the devil.
There may be debate about who started McDonald’s but there is no doubt who owns “The Founder.” After his terrific performance in “Birdman” and “Spotlight,” Michael Keaton has another impressive outing here. Kroc undergoes a real transformation and Keaton nails both personas. Early on, he elicits our sympathy with his portrayal of the Willy Loman-esque Kroc who calls his supportive wife Ethel (no one does “long-suffering” like Laura Dern) each night to tell her how well things are going. We can almost pinpoint the moment Keaton begins his transformation — changing his body language and carriage as he starts to believe his press clippings.
Director Hancock has assembled a strong supporting cast comprised primarily of TV actors, including B.J. Novak and the always-interesting Linda Cardellini as Kroc’s second wife. The film’s pace and cinematography capture a simpler, wholesome time, reflecting Kroc’s belief that the expansion of McDonald’s was his patriotic duty.
Hancock previously directed the baseball movie “The Rookie” with Dennis Quaid and thrives with this broad brushstroke Americana, as in a key scene at the start of “The Founder.” Over dinner, the McDonald brothers are explaining to Kroc how they came up with their speedy system in a neighborhood tennis court chalking out each station for optimal flow. This quasi-burger ballet with its aerial shot of mastermind Dick McDonald standing on a stepladder with a megaphone choreographing the action is simply magical. Kroc is mesmerized … and so are we.
It would be easy to vilify Kroc but, while the brothers invented a terrific concept, the film makes it clear that there would be no McDonald’s as we know it without Ray Kroc.
“The Founder” works on many levels — as a rags-to-riches story, a business school lesson, and unearthing history (not unlike “Hidden Figures”). The credits reveal what ultimately happened to all the parties involved with the McDonald brothers getting some long overdue credit.
Of course, we know how things turned out for Ray Kroc. Fittingly, I saw the preview at Dipson’s Amherst Theatre, located right next door to one of world’s 34,492 McDonald’s.
★ ★ ★ (out of four)
Starring: Michael Keaton, Nick Offerman, Laura Dern, John Carroll Lynch
Director: John Lee Hancock
Rated: PG for brief, strong language.
Running time: 115 minutes
The lowdown: The story of how McDonald’s restaurants went from one restaurant to a global powerhouse.