One of my early memories involves sitting in a McDonald’s by the window with my family watching the sky light up with lightning from a random thunderstorm. Extreme weather on one side; fast food on the other – what’s not to be happy about, at least when you’re a kid? Of course, this was years before I had one of “those” teachers; you know, the kind who believes it is their solemn duty to educate their charges on the Way the World Really Works, including the realities of how one’s hamburger arrives in one’s paper wrapping, which contributed to my becoming a (sort of) vegetarian. In “The Founder,” starring Michael Keaton as real-life McDonald’s (co) founder, Ray Kroc, we don’t get to see how the hamburger is made, but we do get to see the behind-the-scenes workings of how the other two founders’ idealism slowly gets eroded, which may make you think twice about patronizing McDonald’s.
When the movie starts in the fifties, Michael is spending most of his time on the road hawking his mixers (which no one really wants) and bemoaning the current state of fast food joints, in which you must wait upward to a half hour for your food, even if it is ultimately served to you by a perky girl on roller skates. When out of the blue, he gets an order for six mixtures for one restaurant, he assumes it’s an error, but when he calls Dick (Nick Offerman) and Mac (John Carroll Lynch) McDonald to verify, Michael is assured that it’s valid. In fact, he should even bring two more! When he goes out to San Bernardino, Calif. to see the place for himself, Michael is knock-your-socks-off impressed. Not only does he get his food a few minutes after ordering, it’s tasty, portable and easy to dispose of the trash when done. Soon, he’s proposing to the McDonald brothers that they consider franchising it – but they’re too hung up on things like quality control and avoiding “crass commercialism.” They also want to keep the menu focus just on burgers, fries and milkshakes. If you can imagine. But Michael works on them and gets them to consider the idea, even after he hangs up on them multiple times prompting this exchange:
One brother: “His bark is worse than his bite.”
Other brother dryly: “That’s what Neville Chamberlain said.”
Hee. But soon, they’ve struck a deal with the devil – though like most movies of this sort (“The Social Network”), they won’t realize it for awhile. As it turns out, not only should one read ALL the fine print when signing a business deal, but one must also never simply rely on a goodwill handshake to seal things. The McDonald brothers are savvy about a lot of things – such as taking advantage of the transition from carhops to restaurants without “undesirable elements,” i.e. teenagers, but sadly, make a mistake trusting Michael. Today, fast food chains fill a valuable niche in a world where everything is open 24-7, but probably are not considered shining examples of non-crass commercialism. Everyone in the film does a decent enough job, and it nicely captures the atmosphere of that era, but there’s not a lot to distinguish “The Founder” from similar movies. But perhaps a movie focusing squarely on the McDonald brothers might be worth making – they certainly have a more easy-to-sympathize-with rags-to-riches path. In the end, however, the good guys got shafted, but McDonald’s is still forever. Even if it does serve other items besides burgers now.