I might be alone here, but when I heard there was going to be a film about the origins of the McDonald’s brand I was immediately sold. I couldn’t tell you why. Maybe it was the thought of a Ronald McDonald origin movie. Maybe it was the fact that it starred Michael Keaton, who is enjoying a comeback worthy of a biopic itself. Or maybe it was because I love me a good ol’ Big Mac after a long day at the day job, and another for the drive home. Whatever it was, The Founder had me hooked like a fat lad at an all-you-can-eat buffet.
Without question, it’s an odd choice for subject matter. In fact, the last time McDonald’s was the focus of anything of note, it was probably Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me, and we all know how that turned out. The announcement brought with it flashbacks of the Facebook movie, or the recently announced Emoji flick. I mean, who wants to see a film about Facebook? Yet it was both fascinating and engaging and the critics bloody loved it.
So, what exactly does a McDonald’s movie look like? Well, although there is a certain element of propaganda here (McDonald’s burgers are like crack in this movie), it is largely the tale of one failed salesman’s “eureka” moment, in which he encourages two small town businessmen to allow him to franchise out their idea for the world’s most efficient burger stand, turning it from a quaint, unique family run business into the global mastodon we know and love (albeit grudgingly) today.
Michael Keaton is Ray Kroc, a travelling salesman who spends much of his time migrating from burger stand to burger stand, trying and failing to shift the latest gadget that will “greatly improve” their businesses. Kroc is determined but largely unsuccessful, until he receives a large order from two brothers – Dick and Mac McDonald – who claim they are struggling to handle the demand for their unique brand of hamburger.
Unconvinced by the brothers claims, Kroc sets off to visit their establishment, located on a San Bernardino street corner and is amazed by what he finds. Instead of the usual hustle and bustle of your run of the mill burger joint, Kroc finds a gleaming kitchen, with a lightening quick production line of happy and loyal staff. It is like nothing he has seen before, and it is in this moment Kroc realizes that San Bernardino’s best kept secret is exactly what 1950’s America is crying out for.
Dick and Mac, played by Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch respectively, are the embodiment of the so-called American Dream. After years of rehashing old, tired ideas they are finally doing it their own way. Piggybacking on their success, and smelling money, Kroc eventually convinces the McDonald’s to let him set up several franchises across the US, promising he will grow the brother’s brand one burger at a time.
As the company begins to grow, however, so do the cracks in the relationship between the McDonald’s founders and Keaton’s titular founder. The brother’s vision, which had appealed so highly to Kroc at the start of the movie, simply becomes a corporate tag line with time, ultimately leading to a parting of the ways, and Dick and Mac going out of business in quick time; and that’s the crux of the movie. The film is called The Founder, but what exactly did Kroc found? It certainly wasn’t McDonald’s. If anything, he was the founder of the modern era of fast food chains, which couldn’t be further from the business plan of the original McDonald stand all those years ago.
The Founder is definitely one to watch. It is an interesting look at the commercialization of an ideal, but likewise a dark reminder that no matter how big your dream is, Corporate America can – and will – take it all way. Keaton excels as Kroc, a man who is equal parts Ronald McDonald and Hamburglar, both likable and detestable at the same time, without ever truly changing at any point.
The film comes unstuck however when you realise it’s message is lost as soon as the audience walks out of the cinemas and straight into the nearest McDonald’s. We all feel for Dick and Mac as Kroc casts them aside like they had no part to play in his success, yet we’re all complicit in justifying Kroc’s actions. It’s a shame that the message the filmmaker is hoping to convey will be discarded as quickly as the wrapper for the burger we’ll all be enjoying this weekend. So we may as well make it a super size for good measure.