I cannot imagine many other actors with the aggressive vitality and breadth of Michael Keaton’s acting gifts who would as ably and voraciously take on the role of Ray Kroc, entrepreneur and millionaire of the golden arches franchise, the imminently profitable McDonald’s Corporation. Keaton does Ray Kroc justice with his confidence, his bravado and his winning salesmanship, which are a cover for his depression and career despair right before he checks out a restaurant which wants to buy the milk shake mixers he is selling.
In The Founder, directed by John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side, Saving Mr. Banks), and written by Robert D. Siegel, filmmakers create an intriguing, edgy portrait of a man whose Horatio Alger ambitions finally yield the golden ring. Whether Ray Kroc should be vilified for his rapacity to “make it” or be praised, clearly, Kroc must be credited with his driving intuition to pursue a potential opportunity and convert it into a brilliantly profitable public corporation which remains accountable to its fans and shareholders.
With meticulous attention to historic details of setting (1950s America from Illinois to San Bernadino, California, and places North, South and in between), through finely tuned characterizations, and acute artistic design, Hancock chronicles the visionary budding entrepreneur. He carefully details the personal grist required for Kroc’s meteoric rise from 52-year-old, alcoholic, multi-mixer salesman “has-been,” to feted star CEO of one of the most renowned fast-food corporations in the world. Kroc was a revolutionary with experience in the food industry who placed himself at the right place at the right time. Filmmakers reveal how Kroc’s innate sense of what works and what doesn’t inspired him to latch onto a successful business model and improve on it. He was unafraid to allow his ambition to take full control of his personal and professional life.
The director wisely selects key events in the arc of success which bring about Kroc’s ultimate acquisition and strengthening of the McDonald’s brand as we know it. In the opening sequence, the filmmaker shows Kroc dealing with rejection after rejection failing to sell milk shake mixers to owners of drive-ins. After an ineluctably distressing day keeping scheduled appointments which end in zero sales, Kroc is alone in his motel room in an intimately embarrassing moment at the “end of his rope.” He is worn-out, exasperated, sipping alcohol to relax from the fatal acknowledgement that the product he sells is in decline. Keaton embodies this with a few resigned gestures and a mountain of in-the-moment sense memories that embody the spirit of failure. The empathy we feel for him at this juncture mitigates and almost justifies his later ruthlessness.
Keaton’s Kroc is in the abyss in this seedy motel room, one of a thousand he has spent his nights in as he has scoured the country in a dead-end job. Then comes the transformation! Kroc uplifts himself with a spiritual resonance and hope that differentiates him from everyone else, including we who are startled as he takes out a record and plays, not music, but a speech. The speech is Kroc’s secret mantra which travels him through the hellish times. In inspiring tones a speaker proclaims the quote about persistence by Calvin Coolidge that we remember from some amorphous life classroom.
It begins, “Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing in the world is more common then unsuccessful men with talent…” It is this, not a jazz tune that Kroc plays and says over and over as an encouragement to feed his soul. As wrecked as he is, he forces himself to believe the quote. Hancock has Keaton look in the camera and state what has made him, Ray Kroc, a success. He is a very ordinary man with the will to persist.
Indeed, the film’s main themes are about persistence and the pursuit of the unattainable. The filmmakers have included this vital scene in the motel room because it is at the heart of Kroc’s personality and ethos as “The Founder.” As Kroc repeats the mantra, we realize that he is crazy in his deadly seriousness. Frenetic to succeed at an almost frightening level, his obsessions will motivate him until he is where he needs to be. Later in the film when he expresses dissatisfaction to his long suffering wife Ethel (Laura Dern turns in a fine performance), she asks him if he will ever be satisfied and content with what they have. We know what the answer is before Kroc/Keaton opens his mouth.
This fanaticism spurs Kroc to drive from Illinois to California to check out a hamburger operation that is so busy the owners must buy 8 milk shake mixers from Kroc to keep up when most hamburger joints/drive-ins are cutting back. Though we know that Kroc eventually becomes the owner of McDonald’s, Hancock whets our appetite and appeals to our fascination with just how Kroc does it, how the inner notes he creates and jives to turn into the McDonald’s theme years later.
The filmmakers, in keeping with Kroc’s own autobiographical playbook, reveal how the brothers take Kroc on a tour of their facility. We learn the winning rationale for the burger’s uniformity: they all taste the exact same with two pickles, a dash of ketchup, the seeded bun, etc. We learn why the place is spotless, with no overflowing garbage cans anywhere, why all of the employees look spiffy, why there is no table service, plates or silverware, there is no drive in, there are no jukeboxes, and no places to sit. In Kroc’s opinion Mac and Dick’s McDonald’s hamburger joint is a wonder, a first-of-its-kind with a superb, quick delivery system and delicious product. He wants in.
A mixture of desperation, hope, and obsession prompts Kroc not only to recognize the ingenuity of Dick and Mac McDonald’s brilliant operation, but to want to tweak it to a greater success with franchising. After he finally convinces the McDonald brothers to allow him to sell the franchises giving them each a percentage, they sign the contracts and he is off and running. But he is still in a quagmire and doesn’t achieve what he anticipated. Again, there is frustration, again there are obstacles and worse failures. To raise capital, he mortgages his house. Still, the awaited for profits never come. In worse financial shape than ever, the Krocs are on the edge of the abyss, about to lose their tony lifestyle and everything that has defined their material happiness. And then one day, fate walks in.
There is no direct path to the genius of success, the filmmakers reveal. With Ray Kroc’s story, it is by trial and error, luck, ruthlessness, the flexibility to learn and evolve; all are achieved with the will to persist. Kroc and the brothers do not have the same vision or motivation. The brothers are content with their operation and the tiny profits they are making from Kroc’s sales franchising. The filmmakers have foreshadowed the outcome in the scene between Ray and Ethel; Kroc will never be satisfied and will seek bigger exploits. Thus, it is inevitable that he will never convince the wholesome, short-sighted Dick and Mac to move into greatness with him. It is either him or them and he is about to make the biggest leap of his life, without them.
This is not a typical biopic. The filmmakers select the unusual use of the camera as Keaton breaks the fourth wall and confides in the audience, as both the “objective” narrator and the player in his own story. It is a clever tactic and suggests that this is Kroc’s version, but cannot be the entire story, certainly not from the angle of the McDonald brothers. As a result the point is made that Kroc is avaricious, but it is not for money and perhaps not even for the success, recognition and status he receives to attain what he does.
Then what drives Kroc from the ordinary to the extraordinary? The Founder is Hancock’s fine mystery/suspense story: we know the outcome but we are engaged in the the how and the why as we identify with the protagonist. We cringe and squirm at his failures and we recall that this is a man who defines himself not by any special genius, but by the spirit of persistence, and one mystery factor revealed at the conclusion.
The Founder is a marvelous portrait of what human beings consider to be greatness. Despite all some attain, unfulfilled individuals must always reach for the stars even though by the culture’s values, they are gloriously successful. It is in posing the mystery of Ray Kroc’s being, and in suggesting the why of Kroc that the film shines. Ultimately, the ephemeral uncertainty of greatness that is revealed in Michael Keaton’s superb, deep and human portrayal keeps us hungering for more and reminds us that the journey toward achievement is far more satisfying than the result.
The Founder opens 20 January.