Lots of people got run over on the McRoad to success

Film | by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

The Founder
Opens friday 20
3.5 out of 5

In his 2001 book Fast Food Nation, journalist Eric Schlosser exposed how the explosion of fast food chains forever changed farming, and not for the better. The biggest, baddest chain? McDonald’s, of course. The company grew so huge it could influence legislation, and determine the volume and acceptable (low) quality of farm products.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise. McDonald’s has embodied neo-capitalism in its purest form from its inception. If once upon a time McD’s made money from selling burgers, today most of its profits come from real estate management.

The Founder covers the origins of the behemoth, and they are as savage as expected.

The focus of the film is not on brothers Dick and Mac McDonald, the entrepreneurs who incorporated industrial revolution concepts to the fast food market (“no motion goes to waste”). The real star is Ray Kroc, the hustler who turned the siblings’ ideas into an empire then kicked them to the curb.

Kroc (an oleaginous Michael Keaton) convinces the McDonald brothers to franchise the whole operation, replicate the preparation process and share the same menu in every new locale. The entrepreneur is the first to co-opt words like “family”, “community” and “country” and turn them into mass marketing tools. He also handpicks would-be store managers from among immigrants and veterans, people hungry for success and with something to prove.

The approach is a hit, but Kroc isn’t happy with his compensation. Since the brothers aren’t willing to renegotiate, Kroc devises a way to pull the rug from under them.

The salesman’s incredible shrinking integrity also hits home. Kroc’s supportive wife (Laura Dern) is summarily replaced with a younger go-and-getter (Linda Cardellini), who points out that powdered ice cream is cheaper than the real thing and doesn’t require refrigeration.

There are aspects of The Founder that seem to justify Kroc’s actions, at least in the beginning. But a deeper dive shows how good capitalism can turn bad in the blink of an eye. Kroc’s greed clashes with the quality-minded McDonalds. Guess how that works out for the brothers.

As the movie goes along and business flourishes, the protagonist’s moral fibre disintegrates, fast. Michael Keaton is perfect as the shark in wolf clothing: whenever his mask of civility drops, it’s chilling. Keaton’s main foil, Nick Offerman (as Dick McDonald), sheds his usual comedic persona and it’s startlingly effective. But the good entrepreneur has nothing on a ruthless crook, and decency offers no resistance.

Director John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side) gives his main subject more credit than he probably deserves, but never lets him off the hook (unlike in the Walt Disney canonization, Saving Mr. Banks, also directed by Hancock). Instead of getting bogged down by business talk, the filmmaker emphasizes relationships between a top predator and the other animals.

The Founder’s message is dark: the American Dream means trampling others’ dreams. We shouldn’t be surprised. After all, not everybody gets to be a multimillionaire.