Who’s up for Shamrock Shakes?
by Thom Yee
I remember this one time when I was a kid and McDonald’s was selling their hamburgers on promotion for something like 25 cents a piece. This was the ‘90s mind you, well before the days of McCafé or McDonald’s salads, well after the days of the McDLT, and probably around if not just before the all-too-brief age of McDonald’s’ pizzas, so it was right in the heart of when we knew how bad fast food was for us, but hey, where else were we gonna eat (plus we always ordered the Diet Coke, so whatevs)? And the place was just packed. People were buying the maximum number of hamburgers, ten at a time, and getting their friends to come in with them to order more, as if there were some kind of hamburger shortage, as if they were struggling to feed their tired, hungry, huddled-mass families, as if their very lives depended on it. But who am I to talk; after all, I was there too. I got a McChicken. Man, I miss how good those used to be.
The history of fast food is fascinating, not just for the individual stories and meteoric rises of these tiny burger joints that would go on to become multi-national institutions, but for our personal relationships with them. What begins as a treat for our parents to take us to as children gradually but surely becomes a more and more regular part of our adolescent through young-adult meal rotations, all the way up until we reach that fork in the road and we have to start making hard decisions like if we can afford the cost of quality ingredients and the time to make our own meals or if we ever really wanted to live that long in the first place.
Okay, so maybe fast food isn’t that fascinating, but we still tend to have pretty fierce feelings, beliefs even, about fast food, and that goes both ways, whether it’s just the most affordable meal we can put together for our never-not-growing family or we would never touch the stuff because of how much better we must be than most people. Or something in between. But when it comes to McDonald’s though, well, there’s just something a little different. Whatever our circumstances or intentions, we all know that being our best selves usually doesn’t involve eating a lot of fast food, but for most of us, McDonald’s is just about the only place that’s so self-destructive that we go into so willingly, even happily sometimes (at least when it comes to food) rather than ironically or at our lowest ebb(s) (say, like, at Arby’s or something). There’s just something different about McDonald’s, something special, tribal almost. Maybe it’s that they’re everywhere, maybe it’s that we always know what we’re getting, maybe it’s that we’re doing something billions of people all over the world have done before (they count how many served for us) and had almost exactly the same experience, but something happened in all of the time it’s been with us, between all of those burgers, and after all of those coronaries, that’s told us that McDonald’s is okay. We can let this one in, this king of industry, those golden arches. Sometimes you just have to have it.
What’s it about?
In 1954, struggling salesman Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton) pays a visit to brothers Dick (Nick Offerman) and Mac (John Carroll Lynch) at their restaurant, McDonald’s, after receiving a large order for six milkshake multi-mixers from the two. Struck by their operation and their seemingly non-stop stream of customers, Kroc convinces the brothers to take him on as a partner and to franchise the restaurant, a move that eventually sees McDonald’s become a national chain, but as the company continues to grow, tensions rise between Kroc and the McDonalds. Based on a real-life story. Obviously.
I think there’s a moment in all of our lives where we start to really realize the power of the sheer amount of historical information available to us (a fact that’s surprisingly obscured when we’re forced to study history), and as little interest as I had when I was a kid in learning from books, for me that first realization was when I, of my own volition, chose to look up the history of McDonald’s. It may simply have been the shock of discovering the names of the men who started McDonald’s — “Dick” and “Mac” — that made me remember that moment so vividly, but regardless, I still remember parts of McDonald’s’ early history and was able to match them up with many of the key moments in The Founder. Even back when I was a kid, though, reading from those history books (again, I was a ‘90s kid, so I still had bit of a wait for the Internet), I could detect a bit of a dissonance in the story of who, Dick and Mac or Ray Kroc, was “the founder” of McDonald’s. Of course, I quickly lost interest in discovering more because… I don’t know, Nintendo or something.
Going back to the very founding of what’s probably the single biggest restaurant in the world, it’s really funny to think that at one time the concept of ‘fast’ was a unique and revolutionary idea (and sometimes it’s even harder to believe how many of today’s restaurants [and businesses] don’t understand the importance of McDonald’s’ simplicity, but that’s another topic entirely). Seeing McDonald’s in its early days in The Founder is surprising for its purity, and it’s kind of stunning just how the whole operation worked under Dick and Mac. Their McDonald’s is, as they put it, “a symphony of efficiency”, a genuinely harmonious relationship between the restauranteurs and their customers. It’s hard to say just how much of the brothers’ onscreen personas were informed by reality or the need for a compelling, good vs. evil narrative, but what’s onscreen with Dick and Mac is enough to make you positively shudder at some of the restaurant’s current operations. Of course, shuddering is what The Founder is really all about.
Is it any good?
If the McDonald’s of the ‘50s was a symphony of efficiency, so too is The Founder in story choices. There are strong performances and dynamic storytelling to be sure, but what struck me most about the movie is how well it flowed. As a screenplay, the story of The Founder is a story of picked battles and avoiding complication; the story never travels beyond the ‘60s and never once is there mention of a Big Mac, let alone Mayor McCheese, pink slime, or “Potato Rosti & Bacon Burgers” with “Waffle Cut Fries” (too… much… potato!).
In keeping with what Ray Kroc himself would have us believe about McDonald’s, the story of The Founder begins not with Dick and Mac McDonald building a successful restaurant (that story comes later [and in much smaller quantities]), but with Kroc himself, on the road making sales calls and witnessing firsthand the various problems of the restaurants he visits throughout the country while trying to sell his multi-mixers. Service is slow and unpredictable, wait-times are atrocious, and teenagers are everywhere. The moment Kroc sets his eyes on McDonald’s is a moment of true love far more impactful and meaningful than any of the human relationships he has in the movie, one that leaves him awestruck and bewildered, a feeling he’s not quite able to get a handle on, but he knows he has to have it, and Michael Keaton is genius casting in the role. Keaton is able to carry The Founder and infuse Kroc with energy despite the movie’s sometimes sedentary, and often everyday trappings, and he works so well in the role because we love him so willingly and have for so many years, particularly because he’s felt strangely absent from the Hollywood scene. Look back at his filmography, however, and you’ll see that he’s had very steady work over the course of his career, but to a lot of us, he’s still Batman, and it’s almost like he’s been missing in action since his last appearance as that character in 1992 and when he seemed to rise like a phoenix in 2014’s Birdman, and so there exists a palpable fondness for Keaton unlike what we feel for almost any other actor. It’s a bit of a cliché to suggest that The Founder doesn’t work without the performance of its lead, but in the case of Keaton, it’s true and it’s almost a meta-contextual trick that couldn’t be created with any other actor no matter how much we all love a comeback. To be fair to Keaton’s in-movie work rather than simply dwelling on his general presence, he does put in a strong performance, and there are moments in the movie that are carried as much if not more with the look on his face than what’s going on around him. It’s the type of performance that, if you were looking for buzzwords in a review, could be appropriately described as “magnetic”.
What The Founder seems ultimately to be about is how much concepts like drive and ambition can clash with the idea of success, and while it’s easy to view where Kroc steers the McDonald’s ship as a financial triumph, the obvious question is at what cost? Why I think this story succeeds as a narrative is that the motivations of Ray Kroc are clear and it’s easy to understand why he does what he does, but it’s hard to say what drives him. The movie isn’t simply a story of greed, but of a man doing his best to survive. And then he gets greedy. Then he turns into a complete bastard. You understand the steps that got him there, it’s even endearing to see what he believes in, what he goes through, the hardships he faces and the successes he has, and how much that success is built on truly virtuous ideals and innovative ideas, but there’s still something wrong at the core, rotting away at the soul of the whole thing and slowly making its way out to the surface, and by the time the movie’s finished, you’re probably going to hate the man even though you probably also at least kind of liked him throughout each of the steps he took.
If I slow down for a bit though, and really force myself to think about how good The Founder is, I would have to admit there are a few cracks. It’s easy to be swept up in the sometimes fantastical force of nature that Keaton’s Kroc is at times and just go with the flow without noticing how little there is for anyone else in this movie to do. Actors like Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch as the McDonald brothers are so great and versatile and are genuinely a joy to watch for the pride they have in making a good product and building an efficient and honest restaurant, but beyond their introducing us to McDonald’s as it stood through its beginnings, they don’t get a lot to do, and rather than being the force of opposition to Ray Kroc’s greater ambitions for McDonald’s, their later appearances are played more for comedy than anything serious. I wouldn’t say that’s a misstep or a poor tonal match for the movie, but there’s a part of me that would just like to spend more time with them, and there just seems not to be enough room for them in this version of the story. In the same vein, Laura Dern as Kroc’s first wife (and I’m not sure if we ever learn her name in the movie) feels precisely like the kind of role that needs expansion, but again it just wouldn’t fit the narrative to explore her further. The choices made in telling this story of McDonald’s are what make it sing, but I would never say The Founder is a very even movie, nor does it fit the bill for a movie that’s built to appeal to all audiences, particularly for those looking for a more shocking or biting experience.
So should I see it?
So how does a 52-year-old, over-the-hill milkshake salesman build a fast-food empire with 1600 restaurants and an annual revenue of 700 million dollars? I’m still not sure actually, it sneaks up on you, and it almost seems like it snuck up on the man himself in The Founder. By the time we meet Ray Kroc, he is an old man, and where he ends up by the time the movie finishes is a place that he could easily have retired, but he doesn’t and has no intention of doing so. We know from history that where we leave him is actually only about twenty years before his death (not that Michael Keaton’s rendition of him seems anywhere near that), and I think the success Ray Kroc experienced may simply have been so intoxicating that he was willing to do what it takes and step on who or whatever he has to step on just because for him it was easier to stay on that moving train than to try to get off.
I don’t mind telling you that writing this review made me hungry as hell, and I’ve visited McDonald’s more times in the past week than I do in a normal month (twice). The first time, I ordered a straight hamburger (no cheese), fries, and a small Coke, things I normally never order but wanted to just so I could tap into a little bit of the dream that the restaurant has somehow become and still represents even though we know how bad it is for us. That idea, that dream, that American dream, is all there in that one singular place called McDonald’s, never to be overcome or superseded by any other pretenders or false idols (i.e., Subway), but like all dreams, these things don’t always stand up to scrutiny in the light of reality. As loathsome and horrible as McDonald’s “founder” Ray Kroc may come across in the movie, there’s still something about eating fast food, at McDonald’s in particular, that’s shared, primal, almost spiritual, and a deep part of who we are. There’s an obvious comparison to be made between how the movie and the restaurant’s food, once consumed, leaves you feeling a little (if not a lot) more empty than you’d like, used even, but in either case I think you more than get what you pay for if you’re realistic about what you’re getting in to. When it comes to The Founder at least, so long as you don’t set your sights as fantastically high as quasi-biopics of this style tend to suggest (see: The Social Network, Steve Jobs), you should be satisfied with the final product.
Thom’s The Founder final score
On the Edge
- Is Michael Keaton a movie star because he’s a good-looking guy or a good-looking guy because he’s a movie star?
- The woman from Stranger Things?! Spoiler alert: She doesn’t kill anyone in this one. Or is that a spoiler for Stranger Things?
- That dinner scene where Kroc’s wife asks him to pass the salt reminded me of when Vicki Vale asked Bruce Wayne to pass the salt at that superlong table in Batman. Very different result though.